HOUSTON – North Carolina will have to solve Syracuse’s matchup zone for the third time this season to advance to the national championship game on Monday night.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone relies on length to disrupt passing lanes and floor extension to force opposing offenses to start their sets closer to the midcourt than they would prefer. It’s not uncommon for four Orange defenders to be even or above the free throw line. That’s a rather aggressive defensive approach, but its paid off throughout Boeheim’s lengthy career.
The Orange rank 47th nationally in field goal percentage defense (40.8) and 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency (94.3), according to kenpom.com. The discrepancy in those statistics can be explained by Syracuse’s ability to force turnovers. The Orange rank 18th nationally in steals per game (8.1), paced by ACC steals leader Michael Gbinije (1.97).
The uniqueness of Boeheim’s zone makes it a challenge to replicate for practice purposes.
“It's impossible to simulate,” Roy Williams said on Thursday. “You just can't do it… We don't know all the little things that makes it so successful because Jimmy is the one that knows that. He's the one that coaches it.
“We watch it on tape, show it on tape, show them plays when we have played them. It is really hard to simulate that in practice. You got those guys in football that try to simulate the triple option. If you don't have one of those great quarterbacks, it doesn't work.”
Boeheim’s version of the zone keeps its guards tight up top, relying on flashes from its forwards to the wings to prevent open perimeter looks until the ball-side guard can rotate over. That’s an easy transition for the forward spots due to their elevated positioning.
There are a handful of ways to exploit a zone, which Boeheim has found methods to counter. Attack the short corner and the Orange will trap. Overload one side of the court and the Orange will shift their entire defense laterally to match personnel. Where UNC has had success against Syracuse, however, has been working through the high post.
In UNC’s 84-73 win at Syracuse in early January, senior forward Brice Johnson thrived in the high post, scoring 16 points and dishing out a career-high eight assists as his team shot 52.5 percent from the field.
Boeheim made a few tweaks entering the second meeting, and it worked. UNC was held to 41.2 percent shooting and had to win the Senior Night affair not with its offense, but by limiting Syracuse to 41.1 percent shooting.
“One thing you have to understand is the difference in the two games we played them,” senior guard Marcus Paige said earlier this week. “They made it a lot harder to get the ball in the high post in the game here, especially from the wing.
“In the first game, we were able to get the ball to the wing and enter it to the high post to get to our high-low action. They made that harder to do and we had to shoot more jump shots when we played them here, so we’re going to have to change a little bit of how we attack it to try to get the ball inside every time.”
Boeheim’s tactic mirrored his in-game adjustment in his team’s 57-45 win against UNC at the Carrier Dome in January 2014. The Tar Heels jumped out to a 10-4 lead by working through James Michael McAdoo in the high post. Syracuse countered by dropping its backside guard and elevating its center to take away the circle, and UNC had no response, shooting 34.1 percent over the final 35 minutes.
“Even now, they’ve been a whole lot more aggressive as far as pressuring the ball and trying to keep the ball out of the middle,” sophomore wing Justin Jackson said. “Against Virginia, I think that’s how they got back into the game. They started trapping and trying to get the other team’s offense pushed out, so they’re being a lot more aggressive now in trying to close off that middle as much as possible.”
In the meetings since, Williams has instructed his 5-man to make early contact low in the paint against Syracuse’s center, thereby freeing up the free throw line area. Once the ball is in the high post, Boeheim instructs his team to first take away the low post entry to prevent a layup and then defend the 3-point line on the wings.
The result in pairing those approaches is open real estate just inside the free throw line, available for either a jumper or a drive to the basket in hopes of drawing a foul and scoring.
Familiarity may serve as a significant benefit for the Tar Heels on Saturday.
“I think it definitely gives us more of an advantage than it would a team from out of conference that may face them in the tournament and has only seen it on tape,” Paige said, “because until you play against that type of length and the way they really extend that zone out, it’s hard to know how to attack it… It just presents a lot of problems.”