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Jim Boeheim's zone-centric defense the key to Syracuse's success


Syracuse should have the decency to at least pretend this is complicated. It's maddening. The Orange set up in their 2-3 zone on every possession, regardless of score, situation or who is on the floor, and opponents are baffled. The Syracuse zone seems to feature five men and 27 arms. It may be the story of this college basketball season, but it is a short story.

A lot of great coaches hate zone defenses. Zones feel lazy to them. Zones aren't manly. Manly is ... well, manly is man-to-man, of course. You lock up your guy, steal his honor and bring great shame to his descendants. Zones are like getting all 27 outs of a baseball game with the hidden-ball trick.

Syracuse's 2-3 zone looks so simple, and I suspect that is one reason why Jim Boeheim loves it. He told me that he doesn't even have to watch a lot of tape of his opponents, because whatever they do against man-to-man doesn't help him, and "it doesn't help me to watch them play against a bad zone, either."

Syracuse just puts three great athletes behind two great athletes, teaches them a few principles, tells them to be active, and wins. There are tweaks here and there, depending on the opponents' strengths. And sometimes Syracuse presses. But it isn't like man-to-man, which is different against every opposing offense.

So simple. And yet ...

Look at the numbers, Boeheim was saying. Numbers tell you a lot. People don't look at numbers enough. Boeheim was sitting at his desk at the Carmelo K. Anthony Center. (I know, I know -- 'Melo should have asked them to name it after Jeremy Lin.) He was trying to explain why the numbers added up to the No. 2 ranking in the country.

Why is Syracuse 27-1 now, after going 27-8 last season? Boeheim's guys have the same basic offensive numbers. They shot 47.2 percent from the field last year and 47.5 percent this year. They shot 35.4 percent from three point-range last season and 34.4 percent this year. They have improved their free-throw shooting slightly. If you're the type of smooth operator who likes to use advance stats to impress dates, their effective field goal percentage of 52.9 is basically the same as last year's 52.8.

Syracuse is committing two fewer turnovers per game, and that helps. But the difference has mostly been on defense. Syracuse is forcing 4.7 more turnovers per game than last year. Syracuse's opponents' effective field goal percentage is 44.2, compared to 52.7 last year.

Why? Well, the players are older, and one in particular is worlds better. You could make the argument for Fab Melo as the Big East Player of the Year. I'll admit: It would be weird to give a major-conference Player of the Year award to a guy whose own coach doesn't really want him to shoot. But Syracuse is a different team with Melo on the floor.

"I think Fab is a dominant defensive player," Boeheim said. "We tend to give credit to offense. If he was doing it on offense, we'd say he was a dominating player. Well, he isn't, but he is doing it on defense."

Nobody wants to drive the lane against Melo. He blocks a shot every eight minutes, and probably alters twice as many as he blocks. That forces opponents to the outside, where rangy, quick players like C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters make life difficult. Opponents have nowhere to go.

So simple. But maybe that is the genius of it. Think of how many times you see a man-to-man defense break down because of bad communication, or because somebody goes to double down in the post, the offense rotates and a shooter is left wide open. Syracuse doesn't have those breakdowns very often. And the 2-3 zone doesn't require as much energy as man-to-man, because there isn't as much chasing. That has to help Syracuse offensively.

It always seems like good teams should solve this defense -- like once you figure it out, you can score every time. There is one safe bet for this Syracuse team: Some time in March, some NCAA tournament opponent will go on a run against Syracuse's 2-3 zone, and the grumbling will start: Why don't they switch to man-to-man?

Don't bring that question within 12 feet of Jim Boeheim.

"If you're a man-to-man coach and the other team hits three or four shots, do you take timeout and go to zone?" Boeheim asked. "Of course not. So, I'm a zone coach. Am I supposed to take timeout and go to man? Why would I do that? It doesn't make sense. We're a zone team."

They played a little man-to-man early in the year, but before long, it was inevitable: Syracuse became all-zone, all the time. The coach knows people scoff, mock it, say he isn't really coaching. He also knows he is 26-1.