Men's Basketball

Syracuse’s zone works like it should in 70-55 victory over Miami

Jacob Greenfeld | Asst. Photo Editor

The Orange played mostly the same five players for most of the night, with that group playing the zone well against a major-conference opponent for the first time all year.

After 41 years, nothing is going to change. The principles are the same. The rotations, too. Two guards at the top, three forwards at the bottom. Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone should look and operate the same, night in and night out.

It worked like it should on Wednesday, against 11-win Miami, when Syracuse held the Hurricanes to 55 points just three days after allowing 96 to the team picked to finish last in the conference.

“A little bit more active maybe, I don’t know,” the SU head coach said. “We’ve been using the same defense for 41 years, so I mean it’s not like we changed something this week.”

Aside from allowing one player, Dejan Vasiljevic, to hit six 3-pointers, Syracuse’s defense was the best it’s been all season, certainly against a major-conference opponent. The Orange (9-6, 1-1 Atlantic Coast) held the Hurricanes (11-3, 1-1) to 38.9-percent shooting from the field, almost 20 percent lower than what Boston College shot, and the Orange eased to a much-needed 70-55 win in the Carrier Dome.


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“Any time we watch film and see a mistake,” point guard John Gillon said, “the mistake is always something he’s told us to cover.”

That, referring to Boeheim, is a testament to the inexperience of this year’s team in the 2-3 zone and the horrendous results it yielded through 14 games. Drive-and-kicks where a guard rotated too far into the paint or a big man not stepping down to mark their man on the low block were being pointed out on film. On Wednesday, the Orange finally put the brutal lessons it learned to use.

Playing a five-man rotation composed of three players in their first year playing the 2-3 zone full time – Tyus Battle, Andrew White and Gillon – Syracuse allowed the fourth-fewest number of points it has surrendered through 15 games. The Orange only stole the ball six times but forced 15 turnovers, a result of closing gaps on the interior quicker, cutting off options for Kamari Murphy at the foul line and rushing out to get a hand in the face of a 3-point shooter. Miami did make 11-of-26 3-pointers, but struggled inside the arc.

Even if there’s little explanation why three days ago was Jekyll and Wednesday night was Hyde, the zone worked like it should against Miami.

“I think everybody had the intentions to do it, but we were kind of off by one step,” fifth-year senior Andrew White said. “Rotating just a second late. When you do that in a zone, that’s the difference between a basket and no basket.”

Take a late-game steal by Tyler Roberson for example. Situated on the left block, Roberson guarded his man like he would on any other play. Syracuse’s interior defense has been a major weakness, so this could’ve gone like most other sequences this season and ended up with a highlight-reel pass by Davon Reed finishing with a dunk. But Roberson quickly shifted from the block to the middle of the paint, cutting off Reed’s feed and jumpstarting Syracuse in transition.

Or several possessions after Murphy threw down an alley-oop, Ja’Quan Newton again tried a lob. This time, Tyler Lydon timed his jump more effectively, slid closer to the basket and tipped the ball off the backboard instead of having it fall comfortably into Miami’s hands for an easy two.

Those miniscule differences, through 14 games, were piling on top of each other, culminating in the worst start in Boeheim’s tenure as head coach. In game 15 though, piece by piece, they combined to produce a much different result.

The head coach said it bluntly: “Our defense has probably been the worst part.”

On Wednesday, it was the best, even if it injected life into Syracuse for just the time being.

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