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Woodson Prepared For Syracuse Zone, But Johnson, Stewart Already Have History

Indiana guards Xavier Johnson and Parker Stewart both know what it's like to play in Syracuse's massive Carrier Dome, and both have already had memorable nights there when they played at Pittsburgh. They're looking forward to creating more magic on Tuesday night when the Hoosiers play at Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana fans still gnash their teeth every time there's a mention of the vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone, because bitter memories of the 2013 NCAA Tournament loss still causes heartache and pain.

The stakes aren't nearly as high on Tuesday night when the 2021 rendition of Indiana basketball hits the road for the first time, taking on Syracuse in the cavernous Carrier Dome as part of the 14-game ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Their zone is hard to play against because you just don't see much of it. Even first-year coach Mike Woodson freely admits that he didn't see it much during all his years in the NBA, but he remembers ''licking his chops'' when he played against zones as a player.

It's also difficult to shoot against the zone at Syracuse, because they have a massive home-court advantage playing in the dome, where the sightlines are horrible and take some getting used to.

But one luxury that Indiana has going into Tuesday night's game is that both starting guards — transfers Xavier Johnson and Parker Stewart — have played against Syracuse.

And both have had memorable nights there.

Stewart played at Pittsburgh during his freshman year in 2017-18, and on Jan. 16, 2018, he scored a career-high 23 points, making 7-of-13 three-pointers. 

“That’s Parker,” former Pitt teammate Kene Chukwuka said after the game. “He can shoot the heck out of that ball. I see it every day in practice. I see it every day in shootaround after every practice. It’s nothing new.” 

That was almost four years ago — and two schools ago — for Stewart. His current teammates know he can shoot it, too, and they are hoping he can duplicate that performance on Tuesday night. 

Johnson has had memorable nights in the Carrier Dome as well. He also played at Pitt, but not with Stewart. He was there from 2018 through 2021, and during his three years as Pitt's starting point guard, he played against the Orange seven times.

Jan. 19, 2021 was his most memorable night. He scored 17 points at the Carrier Dome that night, and passed the hallowed 1,000-point mark. Current Indiana teammate Trayce Jackson-Davis knows what that's like, having just accomplished that feat a few weeks ago.

"That's kind of Pitt's rival as well from the ACC, and it's definitely different playing there because it's really a football facility,'' Johnson said last week on the "Point Guard Podcast'' on HoosiersNow.com. "The depth perception from shooting is way different, but once we get a shootaround in there, I think we'll be fine.''

Jackson-Davis said that Stewart and Johnson have both been imparting wisdom to their teammates about playing against that 2-3 zone, and playing in the Carrier Dome. He feels confident that the Hoosiers know how to attack the zone.

"We're going to have a lot of skip passes to the other side, so making the right plays and the right passes is going to be important,'' he said. "Attacking the middle, it's kind of open in that free throw line area, so me and Race (Thompson), we need to play some good buddy ball. It's going to be important to get out in transition too, so we can get to the basket before they get their zone set up.

"We've got faith in those guys like Miller (Kopp) and Parker and X to make shots. I've never played there, but I know it's going to be an electric crowd. Xavier and Parker have played there, and they've been taking good leadership roles. Xavier, he's been there, and he's really locked in to playing there again. He's been texting me all the time. Parker, too, he's ready. But we'll treat it like any other game. That's what we're going to do.''

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Woodson and his assistants have done plenty of prep work on attacking the zone, and success is simply, really, Woodson said. "It's all about making shots.'' Indiana has seen a few 2-3 zones so far this season, but only for a few possessions at a time. Tuesday night,  they're going to see it for 40 minutes.

Nonstop.

"I know we've got to make shots, and I know we've got to make some plays inside with the basketball,'' Woodson said. "Only time will tell. We just have to wait until we get to the game and see where we are with it.

"The zone is what it is, guys. We can't run from it. When I played, I licked my chops when I saw zones because we've always felt when we played here and we went through zones, teams zoned us because they can't play man-to-man. I don't know if that is the case (with Syracuse), but this is (Jim) Boeheim's way of coaching, and he has done it for years, and it is what it is. I think we'll be ready to play and see what happens.''

Syracuse is just 3-3 so far on the season, with a home loss to Colgate and two losses last week in the Bahamas to VCU and No. 21 Auburn. They gave up 18 threes to Colgate in a 100-85 loss, and gave up a combined 19 threes in the Bahamas losses.

This version of the Syracuse zone isn't as long as some of Boeheim's best defensive teams. They don't get closed out on shooters as quickly, especially when they have to focus on post players. They'll certainly have to do that with Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis, who is averaging 20.5 points a game and went off for 43 on Saturday night in the 90-79 win over Marshall.

"He is going to get trapped. We can't run from that,'' Woodson said of Jackson-Davis. "He has to be able to make plays when he is trapped and try to beat the trap obviously, before it gets there. I was pleased the way he played. We benefited from his 43 points that he scored the other night.

"There were holes all over the place because he made some passes out of the trap across court, up top, back out to the guy that passed the ball into him. He is learning to read (defenses) because we go through practice sometimes where I have the second unit trap him just to see how he fairs in traps and can he find open people that are open? Or can he make plays before the trap actually gets there? He did a lot of that in the Marshall game. I thought he did it all.''

Syracuse is a potent offensive team, as well, led by senior Buddy Boeheim, who's averaging 20 points per game. They have scored 75 points or more in four of their six games, and are averaging 38.1 percent from three-point range.

All five starters average in double figures, but no bench player averages more than 3 points per game. They are a talented team, but not a deep team.''

"Their starting five all is averaging in double figures, so that's a concern. That's the first team that we faced that all five guys are averaging double figures, and the reason that is is that they're only about eight deep, and the other three off the bench don't get the high volume shots as the starting five, so you are going to have to know going into the game that that starting five is going to play 30-plus minutes, each guy.

"All of them can score the basketball, so we're going to have matchups all over the floor where you can't take Tuesday off. Everybody has to come ready to play defensively from a man-to-man standpoint and be ready to help from a team standpoint defensively.''

Tuesday's game starts at 7 p.m. ET, and will be televised on ESPN2.

Watch the full "Point Guard Podcast''

Here is the full second episode of the  "Point Guard Podcast'' on HoosiersNow.com with Xavier Johnson and Rob Phinisee. Episode 3 is on Thursday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. ET