Hoops: In The 'Zone'

The patented Syracuse zone defense has many names and even more victims. Some call it a basic 2-3; others say the Orangemen operate primarily out of a box and one. Most call it virtually impenetrable (just ask Oklahoma and Oklahoma State). Head coach <B>Rick Barnes </b>simply labeled it "big" and "long" Monday but, rest assured, it's not something his team hasn't dealt with before.

"It's a big athletic zone that's intent on taking away gaps," Barnes said. "It's different because of its players. Their personnel is what makes it different. (Head coach) Jim (Boeheim) has always played the zone but he tweaks it along the way based on his players."

As such, the ‘Cuse zone can easily defy description. Most zone teams typically run a 2-3, predicated around defending a dominating post player. But the thing that sets apart Syracuse is the way in which the Orangemen can extend the zone, rebound, run with the ball as well as generate offense.

"The concern is the length of their zone and how big they are with it," Barnes said. "The length, and their athleticism, has a lot to do with it. I don't think we've played against a zone like that for those reasons."

To expound upon Barnes' remarks, Texas has played against a zone like that, but just not with Syracuse's personnel. The eyes of Texas will be upon freshman Carmelo Anthony, a 6-8 forward that many insist is the best all-around player in the Final Four. The highly recruited Anthony scored a game-high 20 points against the Sooners. If the Orangemen have an Achilles Heel, it is the perception that they lack muscle in the middle. Ex-‘Cuse me? All they've got is 7-0, 265-pound C Craig Forth to battle junior C James Thomas.

Nearly every non-conference team Texas played last December and January hastily implemented some sort of sagging zone in order to clog the middle and try force a perimeter game. Here, opponents wanted to account not for a post player but rather point guard T.J. Ford.

Nobody (but nobody!) has anyone who can shadow a gamer like Ford for 40 minutes. Hence, teams have often slapped together a zone to try to discourage his dribble penetration. The original sin of a 2-3 is allowing dribblers to split the zone, forcing other defenders to converge on the ball handler, and leaving someone with an open look (Brian Boddicker or Sydmill Harris, perhaps?)

"We work against the zone every day because we know there are times when people will throw that at us," Barnes said. "Early in the year, you saw it as much as anything. Our players feel like they can play against the zone, and we're not going to do anything to make them think otherwise. It's important for us to get into an attack mode and we've got to run like we always have."

In other words, Barnes does not want his team settling for the path of least resistance by jacking up treys. No small part of the reason why Oklahoma went nearly 15 minutes without a bucket in their loss to Syracuse is because the Sooners responded with 5-of-28 from beyond the arc. Syracuse's "big zone" also knocked Oklahoma State out of the Big Dance, making them the Big 12 killers to date.

Barnes stopped short of saying that Texas is better than either the Sooners or the Cowboys (why state the obvious?) but instead pointed out that his team has different personnel.

"This is the first team that I've had with a little bit of everything," Barnes said. "We've got size inside that can play. We obviously have a point guard that makes everyone around him better. We've got guys who can shoot from the wing. I'm not sure I've ever had a team with this many weapons as this team has."

With Texas, you pick your poison. Collapse on Ford? He kicks it out to Boddicker or Harris. Meanwhile, Thomas and forwards Brad Buckman and Jason Klotz can muscle it inside. It means Barnes is not compelled to do anything different despite facing a team that will give him a different look. To paraphrase my favorite scripture from the gospel according to Darrell (Royal), Barnes intends to ‘dance with the one who brung him.'

"Our mindset is to continue to do what we have done," Barnes said. "We have concepts we apply against a zone: people in the right spots, penetration, knocking down shots. It's not going to be one thing. We've got to run and get down the floor. We've got to get easy baskets no matter who we are playing. You don't want to get stagnant by playing east and west. You've got to go north and south more than east and west."

That's part of the reason why Texas is now heading southeast…to New Orleans.

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