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How to Attack Syracuse's 2-3 Zone

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We all know that Syracuse runs a 2-3 zone, but how do teams successfully attack it?

Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse is unique in that they almost exclusively run a 2-3 zone defense, as opposed to man-to-man defenses. Because the vast majority of teams play primarily man-to-man defense, it can be difficult to quickly prepare to play against Syracuse's zone. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim has utilized this defense for decades, and his teams have been excellent on defense as a result. The Orange have finished top-20 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency in each of the past five seasons, and are currently 13th.  Boeheim recruits long and athletic players who fit his scheme. There are ways to beat it, however, so let's break down Cuse's zone and how it can be attacked.

Initial Set

Syracuse's 2-3 is unique in that their back two forwards start higher up than forwards do in more traditional 2-3 zones. This allows the forwards to more easily close out once wing players receive the ball. In this scheme the back forward closes out on the offensive wing player before the top wing side defender has the opportunity to close out on the defender. The back forward then either stays to trap along with the wing or retreats back to his original position on the floor.

Trap on Wing
wing trap

Above we see Syracuse trapping at the wing. In this case it's actually forward Charles Mitchell, so it serves as a modified 4-out-1-in set for Georgia Tech. Trevor Cooney (#10) is playing too high above the three point line, and that leave the high post area WIDE OPEN. It's even more wide open than usual because the trap came from the center and the forward, while the guard stayed out to defend the three-point shooter (#3). Mitchell recognizes this, makes the pass to the cutter, and then Georgia Tech has a 2-on-1 advantage and ultimately gets a lay-up.

Ball in Short Corner After Ball Reversal

short corner


Ball reversal is critical to success against any zone defense. Offenses need to cause the zone to shift before they are able to find wider seams in the zone. After a reversal of the basketball, Georgia Tech gets the ball to #11 Josh Heath in the short corner of the zone, which is one of the major vulnerabilities of this zone. Heath is then able to take one dribble and create a 3-on-2 situation. Against zones, offenses are looking to overload and create numbers advantages. Georgia Tech caught the defense playing too high on this position, but they were unable to convert on the short shot. But you know we're all about the #process here at BSD and write the story when the ball is in the air.

Ball in High Post

Wake Forest, or any team facing Syracuse, is going to want to operate out of the high post as often as possible. The more times teams can get the ball in that area against Syracuse, the more likely teams are to come away victorious. In a set with 3 perimeter guards, a high post player and a low post player, the offense has the advantage once the high post player has the ball, especially if that player is skilled. Once the high post played gets the ball, he'll either have the opportunity to beat the center off the dribble, feed the low-post, or kick out to an open three-point shooter after the defense sucks in. In the above example the high post does not even look to go hi-low, but does kick out for an open perimeter shot.

Screening Against a Zone

Most do not think of screens as a way to defeat zone defenses, but they can be very effective in certain situations. Above you'll see that Virginia Tech gets the zone to shift one way, on the ball reversal the top left guard (#14) is blinded by #0's screen. That could have generated a mid-range jumper, but in this case it set up an open corner shot. Below, a ball screen is refused up top, but #0 does an excellent job of sealing Rakeem Christmas (#25) in the paint. Screens could be very effective getting Codi Miller-McIntyre looks.

Don't Allow the Zone to Get Set Up

Another way to beat the Syracuse zone, is to simply avoid it. Obviously much easier said than done, but Wake Forest has a better chance than most teams to execute this strategy given their tendency to push the ball at almost every opportunity. Above you'll see Georgia Tech push the ball off a rebound, while below you'll see Wake Forest push it after a made basket. I have to think our coaching staff is emphasizing this in practice.

What Not To Do Against a Zone

Above  is what not to do against a zone. If Wake does something resembling the above "offense" too often against Syracuse, then I don't like Wake's chances. Virginia Tech gott zero touches to either the high post or short corners with no movement from anyone on the perimeter then hoist up an NBA range 3 with 13 seconds remaining on the shot clock. This offensive sequence is exactly why teams run zones.

Wake Forest vs. Zone Defense

Wake has not played many possessions against zone defenses this season, but I believe the Deacs have the personnel to perform well against Syracuse. Guards Mitchell Wilbekin and Cornelius Hudson should be able to stretch the zone with their outside shooting. In addition to those two, Wake Forest also has stretch-fours Dinos Mitoglou and Darius Leonard who can knock down outside shots and operate out of the high post. Devin Thomas should also be able to operate out of the short corner and kick to open shooters. Finally, Codi Miller-McIntyre will be helpful in beating Syracuse down the court and not allowing them to get set up.

I hope this was helpful and informative. Many thanks to Adam for generating the GIFs. Later tonight we'll see what principles the Deacs use to attack the Cuse zone and hopefully crush the Orange.