A year after finishing 8th in the country in points-per-game allowed (59.2), the Orange looks to replace three key starters from last year’s lineup who played integral roles in the iconic 2-3 zone.
Losing Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant to the NBA is a big blow to the Orange’s offense, let alone defense. A big part of the 2-3 zone is the ability to force turnovers, namely steals. With the loss of Ennis, Fair and Grant, Syracuse will have to replace 4.2 steals-per-game – roughly half of their steals-per-game average of 8.0. Luckily, Trevor Cooney (1.9 spg) returns for his junior season.
Syracuse also lost 16.6 rebounds-per-game with the departures of Ennis, Fair and Grant – more than 3/4th of their 22.0 rpg, which ranked 302nd in the country last season.
Although significant departures are usually big blows at both ends of the floor, the great thing about Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense is that it’s simple and replicable.
It will need to be this season as the Orange has to break in three new starters and a handful of rotational players in Boeheim’s 38th season at the helm.
While senior center Rakeem Christmas will hold down the zone in the paint, Cooney and combo guard Michael Gbinije will most likely bark out the orders from the arc where he’ll have to show freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph the ropes.
Along with Joseph, freshman Chris McCullough and the combination of B.J. Johnson and Tyler Roberson filling in at Fair’s small forward position, the Orange will have to lean heavily on the older players like Christmas, Cooney and Gbinije while the youngsters pick up the system.
For a guy like McCullough, athleticism and size can get him by at the start of the year before he truly picks up the nuances of the 2-3 zone.
Standing 6-feet-10, the freshman McCullough will be a force in the paint next to Christmas. McCullough’s ability to close out on shooters will also give him an advantage over the other young guys seeing playing time.
Outside of the starting five of Joseph, Cooney, Christmas, McCullough and Johnson/Roberson/Gbinije, reserves such as Chinonso Obokoh and Ron Patterson will be counted on to hold down the fort while the starters rest.
Obokoh (6-10, 215) could see a big jump in minutes behind Christmas, especially with the uncertainty surrounding DaJuan Coleman and his nagging knee injury. He’ll have to be up to speed and comfortable in the 2-3 zone when Christmas gets into foul trouble or needs a quick breather.
If the Orange can come close to allowing the 1.00 points-per-possession (2nd) that it allowed last season on their way to a 26-8 record, Syracuse could be in position to make another deep tournament run.