Any recreational league basketball team, any police athletic league squad and every group of 8-year-olds who wear the same uniform are, on the first or second day of practice, introduced to the 2-3 zone defense.
The coach will say, “On defense, you two short guys stay near the foul line, and you three bigger kids, you go down near the basket. Put your hands up, and you’re now playing the 2-3.”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim organizes his charges in the same configuration, but this is no recreational league.
“Credit to Jim Boeheim, that zone was very effective; it’s tough,” says University of California, Berkeley coach Mike Montgomery.
Montgomery, like all of Syracuse’s other opponents, was undone by the 2-3 — or rather, undone by Boeheim’s brand of the 2-3. Since Boeheim has coached Syracuse, the team has always relied a lot on the zone. In the last seven or eight years, that’s all they play on defense.
Boeheim never shifts to man-to-man defense, and there is no other college team that does this. In fact, there’s no other team in the pros or in international play (of which Boeheim’s aware) that maintains a 2-3 zone defense. But going 100-percent zone is like joining the Night’s Watch or taking a monastic vow. Boeheim says that scares off other coaches.
“Zone is complicated,” Boeheim says. “The reason people don’t have good zone is, if you ask any coach how much time you spend on man-to-man defense, he’s going to say 95 percent [and] 5 percent on the zone. Well, you spend 5 percent of your time on something, you’re not going to be any good.”
But it’s not just hard work, dedication and the occasional coaching wrinkle that makes the zone effective. If you ask a sampling of players Syracuse has vanquished in the tournament, the overriding characterization is that the team is “long and athletic.”
Taking apart Syracuse’s zone is not that simple, however, and Boeheim simply refutes the characterization.
“People think we’re long; we’re not any longer than anybody, that’s a myth,” he says.
Boeheim does concede he has one especially tall player, 6-foot, 6-inch guard Michael Carter Williams. Carter Williams is fourth in the country in steals per game. His length, athleticism, activity and cunning are a huge part of Syracuse’s success, as well as their level of competition.
The zone does deserve credit, but Boeheim himself said Montana was overmatched, and Marquette couldn’t shoot. He noted that Indiana was confused, and credited only California with having a shooter who could be dangerous.
Asked if the zone is simply the smartest defense to combat the modern NCAA offense — which is to say, offenses devoid of dangerous outside shooters — Boeheim is not so sure.
“There’s about 50 coaches in the country that people would say are better coaches than me, and none of them play zone,” Boeheim said, “so it can’t be something people think is smart.”
So far this tournament, Syracuse hasn’t faced an offensive threat like the one posed by their Final Four opponent Michigan and player of the year Trey Burke, the most complete offensive weapon in the college game. Michigan, of course, like the rows of the fallen before them, have never seen a defense like the Syracuse zone.