ANALYSIS: Zone Changes Cal's Game Plan

Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense stifles, confuses and confounds the Cal offense as the Bears fall in the third round of the NCAA Tournament to the Orange.

The California Golden Bears knew that Syracuse's stingy 2-3 defense would present scoring problems. The Orange, after all, had held opponents to fewer than 60 points in 20 of their 36 games. But while the Bears actually got to 60 by the time the final buzzer sounded, it was more than a struggle as Cal had to fight and earn every single point on the floor.

The Bears struggled immensely on the offensive end in their 66-60 loss to the Orange. Syracuse's length cut off passing lanes and repeatedly forced Cal to take tough perimeter jump shots. The result was that the Bears converted only 39% of their field goals (22-of-56) and only 19% of their 3-point attempts (19%).

Much of Cal's struggles occurred as a result of the Bears being unfamiliar with that tough of a zone defense. In the Pac-12, Cal typically saw man-to-man defense, allowing the Bears to run various curls and off-ball screens to get their best scorers -- guard Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe -- easy shots.

But against the Syracuse 2-3 zone, Cal had to completely alter its offensive game plan. Instead of off-ball movement and open jumpers, the Bears had to force passes into the heart of the zone, and try to make quick passes down low for easy dunks. Cal initially struggled with this adjustment, as it turned the ball over on 7 of their first 9 possessions -- most of which were deflected passes into the key. The string of turnovers quickly put the Bears into an 11-2 hole, forcing them to essentially play catch-up for the rest of the game.

Cal would commit 17 turnovers on the game, and on those turnovers, Syracuse scored 20 points -- a trademark of the stifling defense. While the turnover numbers were large, it is hard to say that they were unexpected, given the reputation that the Orange have.

However, turnovers were not the only story of Cal's offensive struggle. The shot chart indicates that the Bears essentially took a lot of deep shots from behind the three-point line, and a lot of shots inside. When Cal was able to get the ball into the heart of the Syracuse zone, points were achieved as a result of quick passes into the deep post. For the game, Cal was able to take 26 shots from 2 feet or less -- essentially layups or dunks -- and converted on 12 of them. The misses are, again, a credit to Syracuse's length and athleticism inside, which altered shots from the notably smaller Cal forwards.

The Bears struggled even worse from the three-point line, going only 4-for-21. While the Bears were not exactly a stellar three-point shooting team on the year, they were certainly better than their 19% shooting night would indicate. The big reason for this was Syracuse's game plan against Crabbe and Cobbs.

The Orange simply forced Crabbe to catch the basketball too far away from the basket, preventing him from actually shooting. As a result, Crabbe only took two three-point attempts through the first 35 minutes of the game. He would take three more in the last desperation minutes, but his second make from long distance came when the game was already decided.

With Cobbs, the Orange utilized the size of their guards – 6-foot-4 Brandon Triche and 6-foot-6 Michael Carter-Williams -- to repeatedly alter Cobbs' jump shot from anywhere on the floor. As a result, Cobbs and Crabbe were a combined 5-for-18 from the field, and 2-for-10 from behind the arc. The struggles of Cobbs and Crabbe forced others to shoot, resulting in the low field goal percentage.

All in all, the 2-3 Syracuse zone forced Cal to take an abundance of three-point jump shots, completely abandon the midrange game, forced Cal's secondary scoring options behind Crabbe and Cobbs to take more shots, and created a plethora of turnovers. Such is common for when facing Syracuse, and those issues were amplified more by only having -- as head coach Mike Montgomery put -- one 90-minute film session and 90-minute practice to prepare.

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