The Syracuse zone has garnered a lot of media attention over the past week, and with good reason. The Orange are playing defense at a historic rate. The defense has been good all season, but it has seen an improvement of late. In the NCAA Tournament, Syracuse is holding teams to an unbelievable 45 points per game, 29% shooting, and 15% from beyond the arc.
There are several reason for the stellar play in the tournament. Two players have really stepped up their game. James Southerland has taken his defensive game to a new level. Yes Southerland has length and athleticism, but in the past, he has been a liability on defense. He can be late on rotations, and has a lazy tendency within the zone.
However, since tournament play started, Southerland has flipped the script. Regardless of how he is performing on offense, he is going all out on the defensive end of the floor. His rotations are more crisp, he traps at the perfect time, and crashes the defensive boards. James is playing more physical on defense, and is jumping into the passing lanes frequently. That has led to eight steals and four blocks in four tournament games.
Baye Keita has been a stud defensively, solidifying the all important middle of the zone. He helped shut down Cody Zeller, and limit Davante Gardner who had previously destroyed the Orange. He has played with much more aggression than earlier in the season, and his length has been very disruptive. But the biggest change with Keita is his footwork. He is much quicker in his rotations, and is able to stay in front of bigs inside.
Maybe the biggest reason the zone has taken things up a notch (or two, or three) is the collective recovery speed of the team. Several times in the Indiana and Marquette games in particular, a man would be beat but would be able to recover and block a shot or deflect a pass. The help defense has been fantastic as well. If Fair is beat off the dribble, Keita rotates over to cut off an opening. Southerland rotates over as well cutting off another opening.
The quickness of their rotations also allows trapping at nearly any spot on the court. However, along the baseline and in the corner are the primary spots where Syracuse aggressively traps. Their length then gets in the way of passes out of the trap.
As Syracuse looks to throw their vaunted zone at maybe the best offensive team in the country, their disciplined, aggressive style must continue in order to advance to Monday's championship game. Based on what they've shown thus far, there's no reason to think they won't be ready to go.