Coaching Insight: Attacking the 2-3

Former Syracuse assistant and current Eastern Michigan head coach Rob Murphy took time out recently to break down the Final Four match-up between Syracuse and Michigan. The Eagles headman reflected upon his match ups with both teams this year, highlighted their strengths, broke down the ways to attack the 2-3 zone, and more.

Sam Webb: Coach, we want you to help us layman fans out with some understanding about both teams. Just very generally, from when your team faced both this season, just give us your takeaways. What makes both teams so good? What would you see as their strengths, and what would you see as the aspects of the opposing teams that can be attacked?

Rob Murphy: “Well, I think both teams are extremely good; they were pretty much top ten teams all year, two of the best teams in their conferences, respectively. I think Michigan has three definite NBA players on their team, they are exceptional shooters, they do a great job of playing defense. One thing when you talk about Michigan, you always talk about their offense, but I don’t think folks give Michigan credit for playing really good man to man defense, forcing you to miss shots; they rebound the ball pretty good, and they are able to get out in transition; and they’re playing at a high level right now with one of the best point guards in Trey Burke.

I think Syracuse is a unique team, a unique program, and a unique coach, with a unique name. They play a 2-3 zone like no other team in the country plays it. I think what makes them really good defensively is having 6’6” and 6’4” guards at the top of that zone, to make it extremely tough to see the gaps and where you would like to get the ball; and also because of their good defense they’re able to get out in transition, which creates their offense. Again, they have one of the top point guards in the country in Michael Carter-Williams. I think both teams have great point guards, future NBA point guards, and anytime you have that position on your team, and they can play at a high level and kind of get you in a situation and lead you in the right direction, you both have a chance to win.

So you’re looking at two really good teams, two different styles, but both with really good players, really good coaches, and both have a chance to win that game.”

Sam Webb: Coach Boeheim came out and he said that this may be the best he’s ever had a team play the zone, and that’s saying a lot in his illustrious coaching career – he’s had some exceptional teams – but what they did to Indiana in particular, and Coach Crean, who’s seen that zone before, I imagine he has an idea of how to prepare for it, but it just completely stymied them. What makes this version of Syracuse? What makes this year’s team so much better defensively than maybe any other defensive team he’s had?

Rob Murphy: “I think, as I mentioned earlier, it’s those two guards that start the game. I think this is probably the first time in Coach Boeheim’s 37 year career that he had a 6’6” point guard and a 6’4 ½” two guard to start the game and play in the zone. Normally a point guard is 6’1”, 6’2”, but I think 6’6” and 6’4” kind of makes it tough on anybody else outfront for you to see where you would like to get the ball. With the addition of this year’s time, they don’t really have any freshmen who are playing major minutes. Anytime you have a fourth year senior in Brandon Triche, who started for four years, and Michael Carter is in the completion of his second year, and you have C.J. Fair who’s a junior, he’s been there three years, James Southerland is a senior, Baye Moussa Keita has been there three years, Lakeem Christmas completing his second year; so the guys who are playing the bulk of the minutes have huge experience on the floor together, they’ve played the zone together, so they really know it, they understand it, they have great size, great athleticism, and great length at every position, at all five guys, so there aren’t really any weaknesses with the size and athleticism, and the length, which makes it even better when you’re playing that zone, you’re covering more ground, and when you know it, the experience of playing it for two years or more, that really puts you in a position to be successful.”

Sam Webb: Just very generally, how do you attack what the Orangemen do? How do you attack the two-three zone? Are there any very general things that you do when you’re facing Syracuse?

Rob Murphy: “Well there really aren’t any secrets, so there’s nothing to really give away. Everybody knows to attack the zone, the best way to attack is you have to get the ball inside of it, so you have to get the ball in the high post, but when getting it in there, you have to have somebody who can really be a triple threat guy, a guy who can make a good decision, he has to be able to pass, or score, or make that shot. I think in the case of Indiana, putting Cody Zeller there, he wasn’t great taking it off the bounce, and I don’t know if he’s a great passer, so they kind of stifled him; but I think Michigan has the personnel to really be successful against it. Win, lose, or draw, they have a few players in Tim Hardaway and Glenn Robinson Jr., who can get the ball inside in that high post area, shoot, pass, or make a play, score the ball, and they can really shoot it from the outside.  Because of their personnel and being able to shoot, if they get the ball inside, depending on how Syracuse reacts to it, they might be able to get a couple open looks;  but the strength of Syracuse and the strength of Coach Boeheim, no matter what’s going on at the time, they’ve always found a way to make adjustments to where people are being successful, so you have to consistently score to be able to beat that zone.”

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