At Home in The Zone
NEW YORK (AP) _ Coach Jim Boeheim tries to convince people that Syracuse is not wed to that fuddy, duddy zone defense, antiquated in this day of man-to-man racehorse basketball.
Old pal Rick Pitino, who will be on the opposite bench when Kentucky faces the Orangemen in tonight’s NCAA tournament championship game, doesn’t believe that for a moment.
``It’s the staple,″ Pitino said. ``It’s the defense they play most of the time. They’re the best 2-3 zone in the country.″
So it’s unlikely that Boeheim will discard the defense that maneuvered Syracuse through the tournament minefield, and Pitino knows it.
Boeheim’s 2-3 is a psychological weapon, too. It invites bombs-away basketball from beyond the 3-point line. Make a couple like Mississippi State did in Saturday’s semifinal and maybe a team forgets the inside game, the way Mississippi State did in Saturday’s semifinal.
Pitino calls that fool’s gold.
``You have to be patient,″ he said. ``If you make three or four long jump shots and if you think you’ve discovered a way to beat it, you’re really not. Patience, dribble penetration and offensive rebounding is the key to beat a great zone defense.″
A year ago, North Carolina’s zone bounced Kentucky from the tournament. Pitino said the Wildcats have practiced against it ever since, although it is rarely seen in the SEC where Kentucky plays.
Boeheim insists Syracuse is more than a zone team.
``We really play the defense that’s most effective for us,″ he said. ``The zone has been most effective in the tournament. We’ve always played zone, but in different years. I remember one year we played 90 percent zone. And some years we’ve played 5 or 10 percent zone. We’ve played probably 50 percent man-to-man this year.″
Not lately, though.
The deciding factor is the makeup of the team. ``The more physical you are, the quicker, better talented athlete you have, the more I think you tend to want to play man-to-man,″ he said.
Because this Syracuse team does not have those kind of players, Boeheim has used the zone to compensate. The results have been almost entirely positive.
The zone is a foul-protection defense, important for a team like Syracuse that is a little short on depth.
``The zone can’t be effective unless you adjust and the players adjust when people attack and hurt you,″ the coach said. ``The way we play our zone encourages people to take 3′s. Kentucky will attack our zone better. We’ve got to be prepared to adjust. We’ve been able to do that throughout the year.″
In their game last year, Syracuse used a man-to-man defense and lost 77-71. Boeheim wouldn’t blame the defense, though, suggesting that it’s entirely possible he might go in that direction tonight.
And if he doesn’t, if Syracuse stays in its zone, the Orangemen hope Kentucky takes the open 3-point bait.
``Sometimes,″ Boeheim said, ``when you’re playing zone defense and a team makes a couple of outside shots, they think it’s going to be easy. They think they can make the 3′s and sometimes they take more 3′s than maybe they would like to in that situation. If they miss some early, then they maybe try to pound it inside and attack it inside a little more.″
Tony Delk, Kentucky’s shooting guard, knows what Boeheim is up to.
``You don’t want to take the first open shot that you get because that’s what they want you to do and you’re playing right into their hands,″ he said. ``We know we have to get the ball inside and make the defense play honest against us.″
Usually, though, the zone disrupts teams.
``I’m not sure what it is,″ Boeheim said. ``I hope nobody figures it out until after Monday. Then we’ll put out the video on Tuesday and market it.″