Mediocre until March: Why Syracuse's zone baffles NCAA foes

Pete Thamel
·7 min read

Rewind back a generation, and a time existed when Jim Boeheim’s presence on the sideline in an NCAA tournament game brought with it a perceived tactical liability. In 1991, Boeheim became the first coach to lose a first-round NCAA tournament game as a No. 2 seed. Playing Syracuse in that era brought with it a reputation for loaded rosters and a roll-the-ball-out mentality.

Boeheim’s reputation as an NCAA tournament coach has boomeranged, with a Final Four run in 1996 as a No. 4 seed, a national title in 2003 with a No. 3 seed and a more recent affinity for punctuating regular season mediocrity with postseason brilliance.

The common thread since that 1996 run to the national title game has been Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense, which has emerged in recent seasons as the NCAA tournament’s most vexing knuckleball. Since the 2015-16 season, Syracuse is 56-52 in ACC play and 9-3 in the NCAA tournament. Along the way, there have been three Sweet 16 runs as a double-digit seed in the last five NCAA tournaments.

“You just don’t just roll out of bed and play 2-3 zone like they do,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “He’s the best that’s ever coached the 2-3 zone, and Syracuse is the best to ever play the 2-3 zone.”

Since 1996, Syracuse has played the 2-3 zone as its primary defense. Since a preseason loss to Division II Le Moyne College in 2009, it has essentially been Syracuse’s exclusive defense. Since then, plenty of high seeds have buckled in front of that zone.

Will No. 2 Houston be next on Saturday against the No. 11 Orange? Houston coach Kelvin Sampson knows the feeling of a zone collapse. His 2003 Oklahoma team earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and lost to Syracuse, 63-47, in the Elite Eight after shooting 5-of-28 from 3-point range.

“What I remember is them looking dazed and confused,” former Syracuse assistant and now-Washington head coach Mike Hopkins told Yahoo Sports this week.

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim instructs his players during the second half in an NCAA college basketball game against Boston College, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim instructs his players during the second half in an NCAA college basketball game against Boston College, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Sampson pointed out that his two best scorers — Ebi Ere and Hollis Price — were hobbled in that game in Albany. But he admired Boeheim’s zone fidelity as the key to its effectiveness, as he said UH only sees one about five or six games a season. “Jim Boeheim arguably is the best zone coach in America,” Sampson said. “He’s completely committed to it.”

While there will always be basketball purists who deride the zone as a gimmick, it’s impossible to argue the effectiveness. The defense has taken on an aura in March for more than a generation.

This reporter has filed some version of a “Syracuse Magic March Zone” story for the Daily Orange, Post-Standard, New York Times, Sports Illustrated and now Yahoo Sports since enrolling at SU in 1995. It’s like a journalistic Groundhog Day, just six weeks later. Sleet, sneers and paralyzed offenses are all part of the March backdrop in Central New York, as familiar as a Flip Night at Faegan’s Pub or a slice at The Varsity.

Everything pivoted in 1996. Consider then-Kansas coach Roy Williams losing to John Wallace, Otis Hill and Lazarus Sims with a No. 2 seed featuring Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz and Jacque Vaughn. The 2003 run added to the mythical qualities.

The signature game in the past decade played out when No. 4 Syracuse swallowed No. 1 seed in Indiana in the 2013 NCAA tournament, eliminating the best IU team of this generation and altering the trajectory of Tom Crean’s tenure there. In 2018, No. 3 seed Michigan State shot 8-for-37 from 3-point range in a loss to the No. 11 Orange. There are countless other seasons with the zone on their epitaph.

Not as famous, but just as anecdotally illustrative, is the sad song of No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin in the 2009 NCAA tournament. They took seven minutes to score a field goal and missed their first 15 3-pointers. Syracuse won 59-44.

“People don’t see that zone,” former Providence coach Tim Welsh said in a phone interview. “It’s one thing to practice zone offense. It’s another to go out there and go face that zone.”

It should be noted that Syracuse is far from impregnable in the postseason, as the Orange’s losses to No. 13 Vermont and No. 12 Texas A&M in 2005 and 2006 illustrated.

But the recent flurry of success has been so notable in part because the Orange, who are 18-9 this season, have been pedestrian in the regular season.

How much is the zone’s mettle and how much is mental? How much is sublime strategy compared to the mystery of unfamiliarity? Does the zone’s reputation offer as much resistance than the corner traps and crisp close-outs? Those are the chicken-and-egg questions that arise each March, with concise answers never quite coming.

“I almost feel like, deep down, Jim wants you to make a few early and keep shooting them,” said Welsh of 3-pointers against the zone. “Instead of going inside early, and then it opens up the perimeter.”

Syracuse's Buddy Boeheim (35) and Marek Dolezaj (21) in action during the second half of a second-round game against West Virginia in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 21, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Syracuse's Buddy Boeheim (35) and Marek Dolezaj (21) in action during the second half of a second-round game against West Virginia in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 21, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

There’s an element of both strategy and energy that come into play. Boeheim has tweaked and adjusted the zone over the years, playing it higher up and adding traps. But it’s not like the Orange staff rolls out a whole new scheme each March. And once the Orange win one game, they have the built-in advantage of the short turnaround in the second game. In a sport where March performance exponentially outweighs everything else, Boeheim has engineered an effective formula.

Syracuse is a momentum program, where nuanced film watching and intricate preparation has never been a way of life. Much of the genius of the Syracuse zone is keeping things simple for the Orange and complicated for the opponents. "I felt like we were thinking more than playing," Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell said after Indiana’s 50-point dud in 2013.

What’s not simple is the building of that identity, decades of Boeheim figuring out which players would thrive in the system and recruiting that specific type of player. Syracuse covets long and lanky wings, athletic players who can stretch their arms on the baseline or perimeter and cover the court with their wingspan. It’s no accident that former Syracuse wing Hakim Warrick authored the program’s signature moment — the block of Kansas’ Michael Lee in the waning seconds to secure the 2003 national title. Warrick, playing center at the time, sprinted from the middle of the zone and his reach is frozen in immortality.

Warrick is the archetype of the Syracuse low block player. Squint at his 6-foot-8 frame and you can see a generation of players with the same long and lanky body — Damone Brown, Demetris Nichols, Kris Joseph, C.J. Fair, and current indispensable forward Marek Dolezaj. The ability to identify and develop the proper fits has allowed the zone to perpetuate its reputation.

No one knows this better than Buddy Boeheim, Jim’s son who was born in 1999 and has watched the zone flummox in March his whole life. That happened again against No. 3 West Virginia on Sunday. “They didn't know what plays they were running, where guys had to be,” said Buddy Boeheim, who has shot 13-for-23 from 3 through two NCAA games. “That definitely stunned them early.”

He added: “The Syracuse zone is different.”

It’s different than what opponents see all year. And in the NCAA tournament, the results have been consistently similar the past few years. Nearly 20 years after one of Kelvin Sampson’s best Oklahoma teams got lost in the zone, his best Houston team will attempt to defeat both a defense and its March aura.

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