Mar 30, 2013; Washington, D.C., USA; Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim cuts down the net after defeating the Marquette Golden Eagles in the finals of the East regional of the 2013 NCAA Tournament at the Verizon Center. Syracuse Orange won 55-39. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan Basketball: NCAA Tournament -- Final Four -- Syracuse 2-3 Zone

Posted at 7:00am — 4/5/2013

Michigan Basketball: NCAA Tournament — Final Four — Syracuse 2-3 Zone

Hard to Squeeze

Sometimes an entity takes on a larger-than–life status. So it may be with the now famous Syracuse 2-3 zone. That begs the question: Is this zone more a mental roadblock to an opponent than an actual effective strategy? The probable answer is the Syracuse zone is indeed a little mentally intimidating, but more so a very effective defense.

This conclusion appears to be increasingly accurate this year, and the Zonemeister himself, Coach Boeheim, has professed that this year’s version may be the best 2-3 defense of his tenure.

The 2-3 zone has been around for decades and it used to be a staple of small town rural basketball where rosters were short in depth and speed was not exactly rampant. Many programs have long since used the 2-3 zone only as a change-up or to protect in times of foul trouble. Coach Boeheim has stayed the course and has not been enticed to bag a successful strategy because of trends or occasional failures. Over and over the zone has proved to be far more beneficial than harmful to the Syracuse defense.

There are many tweaks to a so-called standard textbook 2-3 zone. Coach Boeheim has incorporated tweaks for decades, based in part on the Syracuse roster and the strengths of an opponent.

When being recruited there is no uncertainty as to whether or not a player will spend years learning and executing the zone. Length of player is very important, as is closing on the ball and gaining position post haste. Syracuse has tall and quick perimeter players that can guard with length and get to a spot quickly as the defense adjusts to each offensive pass and shifting of personnel.

The Syracuse zone has been so effective that tournament teams are shooting at a near 30% clip: stunningly effective.

Mar 31, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Michigan Wolverines forward Mitch McGary (4) shoots the ball in the first half against the Florida Gators during the South regional final of the 2013 NCAA Tournament at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The 2-3 zone is meant to keep the inside defenders inside, instead of chasing all over the floor as so many bigs now do guarding the high screen. The zone is also meant to protect the baseline, provide an ability to pinch the middle, and put pressure of the perimeter shooter or ball handler. If the defense has good athletes, more aggressive trapping can be employed. This causes bad shots and bad passes. When players hold the ball against the 2-3 zone while being pressured, the defense is winning. The offense must react by thinking ahead and anticipating; by understanding the principles of the defense to set up an attack.

The textbook weaknesses are the entry pass to players flashing to the high post and the wing shot between the low defender and the wing defender. Syracuse counters this, as mentioned by tweaks and quickness.

When defending the corner wing, a defender will slide out and the next low defender will slide in quickly to prevent the entry pass in the paint. The ball side wing defender can double the ball and the other defenders slide to open areas on the ball side. When the ball is passed to the outside wing, there may be a double team using the ball side outside defender and the corner wing. In this scenario the middle low defender slides out and the backside sags in forcing a long over the top pass.

Mar 31, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Michigan Wolverines forward Glenn Robinson III (1) in action against the Florida Gators during the South regional final of the 2013 NCAA Tournament at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

To defend the point, the top guards can pinch and cut the angles down and the middle low post defender can slide up into the action area.

On a ball reversal around the horn the off wing guard needs to move and slide quickly and the low corner wing defender can also close. On the pass to the high post, the middle low post defender must challenge. Causing the zone to react by having the other two low post players pinch to protect the baseline cut for the lay-up. The name of the defensive game in all cases is to deflect and disrupt.

Patience will be very important for Michigan. This will be a new experience, and the point total will almost certainly be lower. A 50-49 win is as valuable as an 80-79 win. The zone will pressure, cause some steals, and test patience. Michigan must enter the game with the mindset that two teams must play defense. Every possession in a game like this is a critical opportunity that cannot be frittered away.

There will be more to come as the week progresses.

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Written by GBMWolverine Staff

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