Syracuse Zones In

After 32 games, compiling a 27-5 record, you'd think the Syracuse men's basketball team had seen it all. It had been through close games and through blowouts. It had survived great performances and not so great.

Don't remember? Only remember those heart-throbbing victories where SU stole victories from its higher-rated opponents. Well, think way back to November and December when SU was beefing up its record on cupcakes during its first eight games in The Dome.

For a great performance, look no further than Georgetown's Mike Sweetney. You probably couldn't look beyond Sweetney if you wanted to – the center's ultra-wide body dominated The ‘Cuse for 92 points and 47 rebounds in three games. For a bad performance, recall Elijah Ingram's 3-22 (2-20 beyond the arc) performance in the Orangemen's 66-60 victory Feb. 18 against St. Johns. Give the kid a break, though; he has helped lead the Red Storm to the NIT Finals

Perhaps the Orangemen had seen everything other teams had to offer. The one thing they hadn't seen, though, had to come from within – a good performance from Jim Boeheim's vaunted 2-3 zone.

For all the hype it gets, the infamous zone has had little success this year. It seemed like every time Syracuse appeared on TV, the announcers would go into a five-minute monologue praising Boeheim's brainchild. Often by the time it was over, the Orangemen would have switched into man.

Well, it wasn't that fast – The Coach is stubborn when it comes to that zone. He's even been known to feud over it with Bill Edelin, who has said he prefers man.

In the end, though, SU would switch just in time to pull amazing comeback victories from you know where. It made for some exciting games. And even some court rushes, in the cases of Pittsburg and Notre Dame.

In both of those games, the Orangemen fell behind by double-digits before switching to man and storming back. In the first half of the Pitt game, the Panthers shot 55 percent from the field. In the second, when SU mostly played man defense, they were held to 45 percent and only 22 points. Syracuse performed a similar program when they switched to man in the middle of the second period against Notre Dame, although they still gave up more points than in the first half.

On Sunday, we learned why SU's 2-3 is all the analysts talk about. It stymied the offense of No. 1 seed Oklahoma and made them look like they had never seen a zone before. The Orangemen forced 19 turnovers en route to a 63-47 victory and the Final Four.

But before you go boasting to all your friends that Syracuse has finally found a defense to match its talented offense, examine how it beat the Sooners. Many of the turnovers were unforced. On several occasions, Okalahoma just passed the ball out of bounds. It was a great defensive effort, but the Sooners deserve at least some of the credit.

If SU is to win in the Final Four, and finally get the 1987 monkey off its back, it will need to call on its man defense, just as it did in all its other big wins this season. Whether Boeheim calls on the press, with the Regent of Rejection, Jeremy McNeil holding up the rear, or just the regular, tenacious half-court man, he will need something else. The 2-3 zone alone will not suffice.

If anyone can penetrate the zone, it's lightning-quick, national Player of the Year T. J. Ford. If any team can shoot over the 2-3, it's Texas, which shot 6-14 in its Elite Eight victory over Michigan St.

So, look for SU to go to man at some point in New Orleans. But don't look for it immediately. Boeheim has dared other good-shooting teams, such as Notre Dame, to shoot over his patented zone. Some of these teams had success, some didn't.

In the end, SU's first NCAA title could hinge on how well its opponents shoot. Will there be another Ingram-esque wasteland beyond the arc, or will threes rain down and turn some other team's pastures green? Tune in this weekend to find out.

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