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Breaking down the Syracuse zone and how Michigan can beat it

April 4th, 2013 by Sam Sedlecky

Saturday’s Final Four matchup between the two remaining four-seeds in the this year’s tournament, Michigan and Syracuse, is being hyped up as a classic battle between the high-powered offense of the Wolverines and the stingy 2-3 patented zone defense of Jim Boeheim’s Orangemen. Michigan has scored more than 70 points in all four games thus far in the Big Dance while Syracuse has yet to give up more than 60 themselves.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Boeheim’s defense is that no one can seem to beat it despite it rarely changing. When a team faces Syracuse, they know what is coming. The challenge is in breaking it, which John Beilein is undoubtedly working his tail off in the film room to do. In his career, Beilein is 0-9 against Boeheim, and the last time these two faced off, back in 2010, then-No.10 Syracuse edged Michigan 53-50. Here is a quick preview of what makes the zone so good and how to attack it successfully.

Videos that visualize the zone and the basic principles:

How the Zone Beats You

1. Length and Athleticism: The one constant you will find among Jim Boeheim’s recruits is size, and this year’s Syracuse squad is no different. At the top of the 2-3 zone are 6’4″ senior Brandon Triche and 6’6″ sophomore Michael Carter-Williams, who reportedly boast 6’10″ and 7’0″ wingspans, respectively. Anchoring the zone are 6’8″ senior James Southerland, 6’7″ junior C.J. Fair, and 6’9″ sophomore Rakeem Christmas, with respective wingspans of 7’3″, 6’9″, and 7’3″.

Right off the bat, the length makes it almost impossible to get off uncontested shots from anywhere on the floor, and the fact that Syracuse has some of the best athletes left in the tournament doesn’t help. Any pass inside or around the perimeter will be challenged by this length, and lazy passes are bound to be intercepted. Inside the Orange send away a lethal 19 percent of their opponents’ shots, and teams struggle to score from anywhere on the floor, shooting just 43 percent from two and 28 percent from three on the year, defensive marks good for 20th and 3rd best in the country. Just when it seems there is an open lane or an easy layup, one of Syracuse’s guards is bound to cut it off, or a big man is right there to block it.

2. No Easy Shots: Watch any amount of Syracuse’s zone defense and one thing really stands out – rarely do they give up easy looks. Sure, there are holes in any zone, and teams will get open looks that most teams hate to surrender, but part of Boeheim’s genius is that he will give up a wide open 20- to 25-footer any day over a wide open layup or dunk. The Orange do a great job of making the tough shot look appealing and making the easy shots impossible to come by. Indiana, one of the best offensive teams in the country, was absolutely stifled by the zone last weekend and only managed to make one out of every three shots, and just three of their 15 from downtown. When Indiana wasn’t bricking contested shots or deep looks, they were getting rejected – in all, 34 percent of their shots met the out-stretched hands of Syracuse before coming close to going in.

John Beilein is 0-9 in his career against Jim Boeheim's zone

3. Forcing Turnovers: The last thing Syracuse is phenomenal at is taking the ball away. The Orange have forced turnovers on 23.6 percent of their opponents’ possessions this season, good for 27th in Division I, and are the seventh-best team in the nation when it comes to steals, which lead directly to fast-breaks. Michigan obviously is tremendous at holding onto the ball and getting a shot up on more possessions than anyone else in the country, but the Wolverines have not seen a ton of zone all year, and that could be cause for concern. The Orange can really frustrate and wear teams down with their length and athleticism, and usually force their opponents to take a good 25-30 seconds off the shot clock each time down the court. The longer it takes to get a shot up, however, and the more perimeter passes thrown, the better the chance the possession will end with a turnover. Because it’s hard to penetrate and Syracuse’s defenders rarely tire because they don’t have to move as much, turning the ball over is always a potential problem.

How You Beat the Zone

1. Make Shots: It can’t get much easier than this point, but it can’t get much harder either. Make your shots against the zone and it suddenly becomes much simpler to beat it. Syracuse will give up open looks when one side of the court is over-loaded, and it will be Michigan’s job to make those open shots when they have them. Nik Stauskas has been excellent all year in knocking down threes with a hand in his face; if he is able to do more of that Saturday, Michigan should find itself in good shape. To get open looks, Michigan will have to move the ball quickly and efficiently. Look for a number of skip passes over the top of the zone for open threes as well as kick-outs from penetration and from the high post, which is the soft spot in between the two lines of the 2-3. The man flashing to the elbow for Michigan will also have a number of open looks that Syracuse will happily give up. Mitch McGary and Tim Hardaway, Jr. need to take those open looks with confidence and knock them down to open up the floor.

2. Feed the High Post: Rarely will you have success against the zone by just passing the ball around the perimeter all possession long and then throwing up a long three. The key is to have smart flashes to the elbow/free throw line area, where opportunities abound, from McGary, Hardaway, and Glenn Robinson III. When the ball gets to the high post, there are a number of options. First, the quick turnaround jumper will often be open. Second, a pass to the high post can create a quick turnstile to rotate the ball to the opposite end of the floor for a corner three. Third, the high post man can draw the back line of the defense forward and look for the baseline cut for an easy layup. Lastly, the high post can get a nice drive to the basket if the baseline man comes up and sets a screen. Louisville had success with the third and fourth keys here in the second half of the Big East championship game, when they scored 56 points after only mustering 22 in the first half (whole game video below). As opposed to only having one high post man and one man on the baseline, however, the Cardinals mixed it up a little by bringing the baseline man up to the opposite elbow and running screens or cuts to the basket. The bottom line is ultimately that when the ball gets in the middle of the zone, good things usually happen for the offense.

3. Mix it Up: The last key to beating Syracuse’s zone in the half court set is simply to throw some different looks at it. Running the same action time and time again will likely produce the same poor result, and as soon as one play has success against the Orange, they will throw just a slight wrinkle in to stop it. Michigan loves to run ball screens, and while those don’t always work incredibly well against the zone, they should still use the screen often to open up the driving lanes and get Syracuse out of whack. Trey Burke is one of the best penetrators in the game, and if he is able to get past the first line of defense, Michigan should have success with numbers closer to the basket or open looks from outside.

4. Beat the Zone up the Court: Perhaps the most effective way of beating the zone, especially for a team like Michigan, is to beat Syracuse up the floor and prevent them from setting it up. The Maize and Blue are nearly unstoppable on the fast-break, and they should again be looking to attack whenever they create a turnover, grab a steal, or corral a long rebound. Syracuse will try to set up their 2-3 look in almost every situation, but if Michigan has the numbers advantage while running, one or two men for Syracuse can’t play a zone by themselves.

Other Videos of Syracuse’s zone in action: