Inspired by Syracuse's success in March, tournament teams are playing more and more zone defense. But as much as they use it, they have a long way to go to match the near-total devotion of the Orange's mastermind, Jim Boeheim
This is an article from the March 24, 2014 issue
IT WAS ONLY an exhibition game, but coach Jim Boeheim wanted to make a point. Syracuse led Division II Le Moyne College by just five at halftime in the Carrier Dome on Nov. 3, 2009. Boeheim had typically used both man-to-man and zone defenses during the season, but he liked to work on man in the preseason. "We can win if we play zone," he told his players, "but I want to see if you can guard these guys."
They couldn't. Le Moyne made 54.5% of its shots in the second half and handed Syracuse a stunning 82--79 loss. Afterward Boeheim huddled with his staff and proposed that the team go all zone, all the time, from that point forward. He went around the room and asked each assistant if he agreed. All of them did.
That was the final stage of a conversion that stretched back more than four decades, to when Boeheim played guard at Syracuse for Fred Lewis, who blended zones with man-to-man. Now Boeheim's devotion to the zone is nearly total: According to Synergy Sports Technology, he used that defense on 94.2% of the Orange's possessions during the regular season, the most in Division I.
"You can make what you want out of it, but the facts are, we averaged 24 wins for my first 33 years and we've averaged 30 wins for the last five," Boeheim says. "That's a big jump. Is it better players? I don't think so. I don't think they've been that much better than what we've always had here. The difference is we made the switch to the zone, and we're committed to it."
That advantage is especially pronounced during March Madness. In the last four tournaments the Orange have gone 10--4, reaching the 2012 Elite Eight and the '13 Final Four. Of Boeheim's three other Final Four teams, two of them got there by relying primarily on 2--3 zone during the tournament—the 1996 John Wallace--led squad that lost to Kentucky in the final and the 2003 champs that featured Carmelo Anthony.
During the 2013--14 regular season Syracuse's zone was again effective in locking down opponents inside and out. According to kenpom.com, the Orange ranked fourth nationally in block percentage (blocks per two-point attempt), fifth in steal percentage and 19th in defensive efficiency. After winning their first 22 games, the Orange's offense went stagnant down the stretch, leading them to drop five of their last seven games and wind up the No. 3 seed in the South region. Yet, because of their unconventional defense, they remain a threat to reach the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
It is odd to see a 69-year-old Hall of Fame coach on the cutting edge of a trend, but according to Synergy, Division I teams played zone on 17.7% of their possessions this season, up from 15.6% in 2012--13. Much of the increase is due to the rule changes instituted last summer aimed at limiting physical defense, but the zone has also been a response to the exponential rise in ball screens over the last decade. The purpose of pick-and-roll is to force defenders to switch their assignments, which typically leaves big men the uncomfortable task of trying to stop smaller, quicker players. In a zone the big men can stay near the basket while perimeter defenders handle the screens.
Boeheim's defense is not just hard to beat but also hard to define. It's often called a 2--3 matchup, but there are many times it doesn't hold to that alignment. Nor is it a traditional matchup zone, which is basically a man-to-man in which defenders hand off offensive players as they cut. It has evolved over the decades and, out of necessity, remains a work in progress. "As soon as someone does something that works, then they all do it," Boeheim says. "They all watch the tape." When a breakdown occurs, Boeheim uses his "pencil," as he puts it, and tweaks his D.
In other words, it's not the design of the Syracuse zone that makes it so hard to beat. It's the designer. "The way I look at it is, if I give you the pencil last, you're gonna win," Boeheim says. "If I get the pencil last, I'm gonna win."
THE ZONE DEFENSE dates almost to James Naismith's peach basket, but the idea of a matchup zone, or what was initially termed a "multiple defense" because it featured both man and zone tactics, first gained traction in the 1960s at Westminster College, a Division III school in New Wilmington, Pa. In '68, Pitt hired Westminster coach Charles (Buzz) Ridl, who brought along assistant Fran Webster, the mastermind of the multiple defense. Six years later, as the Panthers were en route to a 25-win season that would end in the Elite Eight, exasperated George Washington coach Carl Sloan said, "Pitt's defense is just like an amoeba. It's constantly changing."
When Ridl retired in 1975, another of his assistants, a former Pitt player named Tim Grgurich, succeeded him. Grgurich was fired five years later, and Jerry Tarkanian promptly hired him at UNLV. Tarkanian had developed a reputation as an exceptional zone coach at Long Beach State, and he was intrigued by the hybrid defenses being deployed out West by coaches such as Fresno State's Boyd Grant and Weber State's Neil McCarthy. Grgurich was struck by how similar the Western defenses were to what Webster had created. "These schools were 3,000 miles away," Grgurich says, "but they were doing the same thing we were doing at Pitt." Though Webster published the first textbook about the amoeba defense in '84, Tarkanian made it famous when the Runnin' Rebels won the '90 NCAA championship.
Man-to-man gurus have long lorded over the sport, beginning with Henry Iba, who won two NCAA titles at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) in the 1940s, and Pete Newell, who won one at Cal in '59. The generation that followed was dominated by Indiana's Bob Knight, North Carolina's Dean Smith and then Duke's Mike Krzyzewski—man coaches all. They taught that defense because that's what they were taught themselves. They also liked the way man-to-man assigned individual responsibility. "My assistant talks to me about playing more zone all the time, but I don't know how to coach it," says SMU coach Larry Brown, a Smith disciple. "I have this feeling that every time we're in a zone, the other team is going to make every jump shot."
Aside from Tarkanian and Boeheim, the only coaches in the last 35 years who won NCAA titles playing primarily zone were Michigan State's Jud Heathcote, who used the matchup he had devised at Montana to take the 1979 championship (partly as a way to hide Magic Johnson's defensive deficiencies), and Villanova's Rollie Massimino, whose 2--3 zone helped the eighth-seeded Wildcats win in '85. Throw in the ever-present influence of the NBA, where zone defenses were banned from 1947 until 2001--02, and it's clear why man has ruled the college landscape for so long.
Once Boeheim made the leap after the exhibition loss to LeMoyne, he discovered all kinds of fringe benefits to playing zone exclusively. It freed up 40 minutes of practice that would otherwise have been spent working on man-to-man. He never had to decide when to switch defenses during a game. Opponents rarely scored on baseline out-of-bounds plays the way they often did against his man. The Orange guards were always in position to fast-break. Any open jump shots the zone might yield proved tougher to make in tight, late-game situations. (Many man-to-man coaches go to a zone in crunch time for this very reason.) And because zone offenses are so basic, Boeheim found that he could spend far less time on scouting reports. "There are a hundred different offensive plays against a man-to-man," he says, "but everybody has just two or three things they do against a zone. You don't have to learn 20 plays, so it's an easier adjustment."
This is particularly pleasing to Boeheim, who has never been a midnight-oil kind of guy. Asked if he studies advanced analytics, he rolls his eyes. "I look at 'em, but I know what's going on," he says. "I don't need the numbers."
THE MOST distinctive feature of the Syracuse zone is its emphasis on shutting down the three-point shot. As the offense sets up, Syracuse's forwards drift up from the baseline and out toward the arc, giving the defense more of a 2-2-1 alignment. On a pass to the high post, the center covers the ball while the forwards pinch in toward the low blocks and the guards fan out to the three-point shooters. It's no wonder the Orange have led their conference in three-point-percentage defense five times in the last 12 years. "It used to be that most people played zone because their players were too slow to play man," says Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who served as Boeheim's assistant in 1976--77 and '77--78. "Jim does it for the opposite reason. He recruits long wings who can cover a lot of ground, and then he stretches the zone so they can get to the shooters."
That emphasis informs every movement. If the ball swings from one side to the other, it is the forward's responsibility to jump to the ball. As the guard shifts to cover, he "bumps" the forward back to the baseline (chart, right). This is another way in which the zone has evolved. In Carmelo Anthony's time it was the guards' responsibility to recover to the three-point shooter, with no help from the forward. That worked until coaches found a way to beat it, which forced Boeheim to install this "bump" action to apply pressure near the arc. In recent years Boeheim has used his center to trap both the short corner (the baseline area just outside the lane) and the far corner, where three-point marksmen love to linger. Remember, it was 6'9" Hakim Warrick who blocked Kansas guard Michael Lee's three-point attempt from the corner in the closing seconds of Syracuse's victory in the 2003 NCAA final.
Though other coaches tried to create double teams with their zones—former Temple coach John Chaney says he wanted his players to feel as if they had their older brother alongside to help them beat up the playground bully—Syracuse's zone allows for "overload" situations in which a defender has to contend with two offensive players. All five players must shift at once, recovering, rotating, helping, trapping and cutting off angles to deny dribble penetration. If one player's movement is even a little off, the whole system breaks down.
Best of all, the zone is malleable. "Every play is a puzzle," Boeheim says. For example, when the Orange faced Duke in the Carrier Dome on Feb. 1, Boeheim instructed his 6'9" center, Rakeem Christmas, to blanket Jabari Parker, the Blue Devils' 6'8" freshman forward, every time he caught the ball in the high post. But when Duke flashed 6'9" sophomore forward Amile Jefferson, who is a far less gifted scorer, to that same spot, Christmas stayed under the basket and dared Jefferson to shoot.
True, the zone has some inherent vulnerabilities. Extending to the three-point shooters leaves gaps for dribblers to penetrate. All that rotating and helping allows for offensive rebounds because the Syracuse players are too occupied to box out. Boeheim recognizes these problems, but he refuses to concede they are fatal flaws. "I talk to Cal [John Calipari] once in a while about zones," Boeheim says. "He says, 'Yeah, we work on it, but as they soon as they make a shot, we get out of it.' I just laugh and say, 'Well, I've seen teams make shots against your man-to-man too, but you don't get out of that.'"
ACROSS THE country there are plenty of coaches whose philosophies are shifting, amoebalike, in Boeheim's direction. The most startling example is UCLA's Steve Alford, who during the mid-1980s barely played zone under Knight at Indiana. Last year at New Mexico he played zone on just 3.1% of its possessions, but when he learned about the impending rules changes, he mapped out a strategy to make the 2--3 a bigger part of his game plan. He also hired as an assistant Ed Schilling, who used a zone defense to win two state championships at Park Tudor High in Indianapolis. The Bruins played zone 39.8% of the time in the regular season, and Alford plans on using it more next year after he adds two zone-ready recruits. "I don't think there are nearly as many people who can shoot the basketball as there used to be," Alford says. "It seems like our game has gone to the dribble drive."
Like Alford, Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins played man at Duke, but the Cardinal used zone 31.6% of the time in 2013--14, up from 5.1% last year, because he wanted to take advantage of the new rules and his big front line. George Washington coach Mike Lonergan installed a 1-3-1 because his team lacked depth and he wanted to protect his starters from foul trouble. That wrinkle helped spur the Colonials to their first NCAA tournament bid in seven years. "I'm recruiting to it now, just like Syracuse does," Lonergan says. "I'm trying to make that our little niche."
But until other coaches commit fully to the zone, Syracuse will retain its edge. "The fundamental rule of coaching is, You're going to be best at the thing you do the most," Boeheim says. As another NCAA tournament tips off, he knows there is at least one thing the Orange can do better than any team in the field. Let his competitors try to figure out how they're going to wind up holding the big trophy. Boeheim just wants to be the last guy holding the pencil.
THE BRACKETS 32
BREAKOUT PLAYERS 36
5-MINUTE GUIDE 52
BREANNA STEWART 56
ZONE DEFENSE 62
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WHEN THEY WERE IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP ZONE
Michigan State's 2--3 matchup zone hid Magic's defensive deficiencies while taking advantage of his ability to rebound and initiate the fast break.
The Villanova coach would sometimes have his players follow a few cutters at the start of a possession in order to fool the offense.
By mixing the amoeba with his man-to-man, UNLV could present a different look while enhancing his players' ability to force turnovers.
Using the 2--3 zone helped him keep his stars on the court; Anthony had just two fouls in the title-game win over Kansas.
LESS MAN ON CAMPUS
Aside from the Orange, these are the top tournament-bound teams that increased their zone play from last season to this one
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
MANHATTAN 49.0 61.7
BAYLOR 7.3 55.3
G. WASHINGTON 19.7 48.6
CAL POLY 20.3 38.0
UCLA 3.1 37.5
IOWA 26.7 29.5
TEXAS 18.1 29.4
STANFORD 5.1 29.3
THE SYRACUSE BUMP
At first, one of the guards at the top of the 2--3 (Cooney) sets up near the middle of the free throw line. When the ball is passed to the wing, the forward on that side (Grant) closes out to challenge the shooter. The other players shift accordingly. When Cooney gets out to the wing, he bumps Grant back toward the corner.
[The following text appears within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual diagram.]
FEB. 12, 2014
SYRACUSE AT PITT
AVERAGE TIME OF POSSESSION
IN SECONDS, FOR OPPOSING OFFENSES, THE HIGHEST IN THE NATION
FOURTH BEST IN THE COUNTRY
ONLY FOUR TEAMS HAVE A HIGHER RATE THAN THE ORANGE