Syracuse zone is up to its old tricks

The Syracuse 2-3 zone has been fantastic in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, sparking their run to the Sweet-16.

Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone is causing problems in March again. It has been a key component of past runs by Jim Boeheim’s bunch, and is up to its old tricks. 

On Sunday, Syracuse dominated Middle Tennessee State 75-50 to clinch a spot in the Sweet-16. That is quite a feat considering where the team was after losing to Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament. Just making the NCAA Tournament seemed like a longshot. 

But alas, Syracuse’s resume was well deserving of a bid, and they are making the most of the opportunity. 

The key to their run thus far? A suffocating defense that has left opponents baffled, confused and searching for answers that would never come. 

On Friday, Syracuse ran away from Dayton, a team that had success against the zone two years ago in an upset win over the Orange. This time around, they shot just 32% from the floor including 6-22 from beyond the arc. 

Overall, through two games, Syracuse’s defense has put up startling numbers. Syracuse’s opponents in the NCAA Tournament are averaging 50.5 points per game while shooting just 30.8% from the floor and 30.4% from the three-point line. 

Over that same span, Syracuse has 13 steals and 13 blocks, including 11 blocks against Middle Tennessee. 

“He (Tyler Lydon) blocked six shots,” Jim Boeheim said after the win over MTSU. “That was a lot. I thought he was good in there… I thought Dajuan, we were better defensively when Dajuan came back in and had Tyler out there with him.

“I thought Dajuan got them a little off balance, and then Tyler Lydon is there to rebound in those situations. So I thought that combination was very good for a stretch there.”

The Orange defense has been fantastic. The rotations are more crisp than at previous points during the regular season, players understand their assignments better, they are limiting open shots and using their length to create havoc for opponents. 

The game plans from Jim Boeheim in each game have been marvelous. Focusing on key players on the opposition, taking away their strengths and forcing them to beat you with their weakness. The zone is not a passive, static one. It morphs, changes, adjusts game to game, half to half, possession to possession.

Neither team could find a way inside, get open looks outside consistently and left the game shaking their head as the zone swallowed them up with relentless aggression. 

The numbers are reminiscent, though not quite to that level, of Syracuse’s Final Four run in 2013. That team put up historical defensive numbers as they made an improbable run to the sport’s biggest weekend. 

Up next is a talented Gonzaga team with skilled bigs that could cause the zone some problems. But as we’ve seen in the past, good defense beats good offense. If the Orange is going to continue to advance, the zone will have to continue to be executed at a high level.

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