Syracuse’s Defensive Tweak That May Have Saved A Season
By Tim Leonard
Syracuse Men’s Basketball Beat Reporter
The 2-3 zone is synonymous with Syracuse basketball. It’s been one of the signature and preeminent defenses in college basketball for years.
However, at the start of this year, it didn’t look right. After a 67-63 loss to Virginia Tech at home on January 7th, Syracuse had hit rock bottom.
The 2-3 zone D was outside the top 120 in the nation on adjusted defense, according to Kenpom.com. The Orange were 8-7 overall and 0-3 at home in conference play. Some fans were talking about this year being the worst Jim Boeheim team ever.
But the headman made a change to the zone, adding a slight tweak to his patented defense in anticipation of playing the defending national champions, Virginia, on the road.
The forwards or wings of the zone moved slightly higher up. A simple tweak, but the idea is to limit access to the typically vulnerable high post and improve the Orange’s spotty three-point defense.
Syracuse has now won five straight games since making this tweak to the zone, Including a 69-61 win over Pittsburgh at home Saturday. The Panthers shot it just 24% from beyond the three-point line in the Orange win.
While Pitt was struggling to make jump shots in the first half, Buddy Boeheim continued to make plenty. The sophomore scored 18 of his 21 points in the opening half to help put Syracuse up by 11 at intermission, despite not getting a single point from the ACC’s leading scorer Elijah Hughes.
In the second half, Pitt trimmed the deficit to three with just over three minutes left, but Syracuse hung on. Marek Dolezaj finished with 17 points and seven rebounds in the win. The forwards are averaging 9.8 points per game and 9.0 rebounds in ACC play this year.
Sixth man Quincy Guerrier also chipped in 10 points and eight rebounds off the bench, while Bourama Sidibe battled foul trouble in the second half. Sidibe had four points and eight rebounds. The center was a perfect 2-2 from the floor and now has made his last 11 shots dating back to Virginia on January 11th.
Syracuse is now 13-7 overall and 6-3 in ACC play, which currently sits in sole possession of fourth place in the conference standings.
After giving up 88 points on 48% shooting from three-point range in a loss to Notre Dame and allowing some late threes in the home loss to Virginia Tech, Syracuse saw immediate improvement.
Virginia went 7-31 (23%) from three-point range as Syracuse shocked the then #18 Cavaliers in overtime. So the Orange kept the zone that way for a home game against Boston College.
The Eagles missed their first 18 threes and ended up shooting an even worse 6-30 (20%) from downtown.
In total, Syracuse has now won five straight games since making this tweak to the zone. During those five games with the forwards playing in a higher position, opponents are shooting 29.6% from three-point territory.
Now, other things have contributed to this season turnaround, including Buddy Boeheim elevating his all-around game, Bourama Sidibe improving his interior presence, and the consistent growth of Marek Dolezaj throughout the year.
This Orange squad is a young team that has gotten a lot better as the season has progressed.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for Syracuse. From the worst SU team ever to perhaps the fourth-best team in the ACC in a mere three weeks. Jim Boeheim’s decision to modify his iconic defense before Virginia may have been the catalyst to everything.
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