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A Look at the Syracuse 2-3 Zone

Why is the 2-3 zone so successful, and what can Wake Forest do to crack it?

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Even the most casual of college basketball fans, if they know anything about Syracuse, knows that they thrive under Jim Boeheim and the 2-3 zone. It has become a bit of a legendary defense that has propelled Boeheim and the Orange to nearly 900 wins, and 5 Final Fours over the past 40 years. In fact, the Orange have only missed the postseason twice since 1976, and both were because they were ruled ineligible by the NCAA governing body.

Many people think of the 2-3 zone as a passive defense, used to mask lateral quickness deficiencies, and also to hide weak defenders. While some out there certainly are utilized for those reasons, the Syracuse zone is certainly not a passive defense.

Rob Murphy, former Syracuse assistant, and current Eastern Michigan head coach, gave some insight to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post (I promise their sports section isn’t #FakeNews) before the Orange-Tar Heels matchup in the Final Four last year:

Though the initial 2-3 alignment is static, the zone itself is amorphous. Murphy, who learned the defense from Boeheim over more than 1,000 practices, runs five variants of the 2-3, which he’ll switch to based on the opposing personnel and game situation. To stop a great post player, he could call “Pinch”: All five players start with their toes inside the three-point arc. With a two-possession lead and about two minutes left, he may call “Wide”: The guards line up outside the three-point line.

The untrained eye (and that includes mine), may believe that 2-3 zone to be the same thing every single play, but there are a few variants and twists that can throw off even the best-oiled offensive machine out there. To play it correctly and successfully requires hours and hours of practice, communication, and trust in your teammates.

Not everybody can just switch to the 2-3 zone that Boeheim plays because it requires length, athleticism, and discipline to consistently play this style of basketball for 40 minutes. That takes recruiting to the scheme and steadfast dedication to the craft, even when there are short-term losses. As Murphy said later in the interview:

“Well, when you’re playing man-to-man and they hit two threes, you don’t switch your man,” Murphy said. “You gotta believe in the zone. If you don’t believe in it, it’s not going to work for you.”

Instead of just sitting back and waiting for an offense to come in and pass the ball around, the Orange defense gets out and attacks the ball-handler, as well as his passing lanes. This funnels the ball exactly to where Syracuse wants it to go to create opportunities to trap and force turnovers.

Before the season there was some discussion around ACC Media Day that Boeheim may run some man-to-man this season, but it has been overwhelmingly zone in the games that I have seen, and the advanced statistics tend to back that up.

The average height for Syracuse ranks 6th in the nation, as they start the following heights: 6-0, 6-6, 6-7, 6-8, and 6-9. That length causes a lot of headaches and uncertainty in passing lanes that are usually open against other teams.

Four Orange players rank in the top 500 nationally in individual steal rate, including Frank Howard, back-up point guard, who is 12th nationally at a 5% steal rate (gets a steal approximately 1 out of 20 possessions while on the court).

This year has been a bit of a struggle by Orange standards on the defensive side of things. They are ranked 99th in the country in defensive efficiency, which if it held would be the worst since KenPom started in 2002 by 31 spots (ranked 68th in 2008).

They are still blocking shots at a really high clip, as well as limiting assist numbers (thus slowing down the offensive flow and encouraging individual basketball), and also causing long possessions (18.5 seconds on average, 9th slowest in the nation).

The biggest problem is decreased steal rates and allowing offensive rebounds, which is giving opponent’s several different chances to score on any given possession.

Wake Forest has a team that seems to be well-equipped to attack the zone. Bryant Crawford can run the pick-and-roll with John Collins or Dinos Mitoglou to get into the paint, and the Deacs have the shooters to knock it down over top of the zone.

The biggest indicator defensively of whether or not Syracuse has been successful is whether or not their opponent hits the three-ball. When the Orange limit their opponents to 30% or less from behind the arc they are 7-2, when their opponent shoots greater than 30% from 3 they are 4-6.

It sounds overly simplistic, but when the Orange’s opponent shoots well from the field this season, they win at a high rate. 7 times the Orange have allowed an opponent to shoot over 50% from eFG%, and they have lost all 7 games. In the other 13 games when the opponent shoots under 50% eFG% they are 11-2.

Wake Forest has shot over 50% from eFG% 13 times this season and are 10-3. When they don’t reach that number they are 2-4 on the year. The Demon Deacons also have five players shooting over 35%, and three of them over 40%. All five have attempted at least 59 3’s on the season, so slightly over 3 attempts per game.

If the shots aren’t falling for Wake, they have the rebounding on the offensive side to cause problems for the Orange too. John Collins ranks 18th nationally in offensive rebounding rate, while Mitoglou is inside the top 500 as well.

The Deacs have yet to defeat Syracuse in basketball since the Orange joined the ACC, but did take the game into overtime in 2015. Dinos Mitoglou had a (then) career high of 26 points on 10-13 shooting. The team shot 36% from threes and grabbed 31% of the offensive rebounds. If this year’s Wake Forest team can put up similar numbers to those then I think they have a great chance to win the game and steal another one on the road.