"Digging In" is our in-depth look at what makes each of the Final Four teams tick, with an assist from the coaches who scout and prep for these teams all season. Next: Syracuse.
On one hand, Syracuse is incredibly easy to scout. There are no surprises. Every time you take the court against Jim Boeheim's Syracuse teams, you are going to see a 2-3 zone -- the same 2-3 zone you saw last time, and the time before, and the time before that. Boeheim's been coaching Syracuse in some capacity since 1969. He's won 920 games. Almost all of them featured the 2-3 zone.
There is no mystery here: Your average fourth-grade AAU player can probably tell you the three or four best ways to try to attack the 2-3, the importance of getting the ball in the middle of the lane, the importance of working the baseline and specifically the short corner, how good high-low and inside-out wing passing can pry the thing open, how sometimes you just have to make 3s.
And guess what? When you actually take the floor, all of that very simple and straightforward junior-high coaching clinic stuff goes flying out the arena ventilation shaft, and you're left with the unenviable task of figuring out how to find the rim with all these tall dudes blocking your view. Coaches take the postgame podium looking like they just banged their heads against a wall for the past two hours, probably because they did.
"They jumped us pretty good," said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, whose team lost 81-34 to Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament. (Tinkle's news conference also included the phrase, "I'm rambling, I apologize." He seemed dazed.)
"We don't face many teams that play zone the whole way," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said, after Syracuse held the Bears to 60 points in 68 possessions in the second round. "And if we do, it's not the same kind of zone that was."
"Let's face facts," Indiana coach Tom Crean said after the No. 1-seeded Hoosiers, the most efficient offense in the country all season, scored 50 points in 65 possessions in their East Regional semifinal loss to the Orange. "We haven't seen a zone like that."
"To compare Syracuse's zone to someone else's zone I think is unfair to Coach Boeheim and disrespectful to their players," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said after his team's 55-39 loss to Syracuse on Saturday.
You could say that every year -- who else has run one defensive system for so long at such a highly effective level? -- but it has never been more true than right now, in the 2013 NCAA tournament. Syracuse enters the Final Four having allowed just 0.72 points per possession in its four NCAA tournament games. That is ... insane.
"I'd just like to preface everything we say with the fact that when we beat them they weren't playing anywhere near as well as they are now," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. That was the first thing Dunphy, whose Owls did knock off the Orange in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 22 and whom I called to ask for help scouting Syracuse, said on the phone Tuesday. It is so noted, Coach. Let's take a look:
When Syracuse has the ball
1. Start with transition defense. The Orange weren't exactly the fastest team in the country this season -- they ranked No. 244 in Pomeroy's adjusted tempo -- but you really do not want to see them on the break. According to Synergy scouting data, Syracuse averaged 1.12 points per trip in transition this season, disproportionately more than in the half court. Typically, Syracuse gets on the break at times when you can't really prevent them from doing so, which has more to do with their defense; how are you supposed to play good transition defense when Michael Carter-Williams turns you over in the open floor? But you can control at least some aspect of it, particularly if you elect to eschew offensive rebounds in favor of preventing long rebounds from turning into fast-break opportunities. "Offensive rebounding is notoriously what zone teams struggle with," Dunphy said. "So you can try and send an extra guy to the glass if you want, but you leave yourself susceptible to the run-out." There will be more on this trade-off in the defensive section, but suffice it to say you have a much better chance of stopping Syracuse if you can somehow halt its open-court offense.
2. Rebound your own glass. When Syracuse is in the half court, it's a good but not great offensive team. The Orange are not bad, of course -- Carter-Williams is one of the best facilitators in the country, C.J. Fair keeps adding skills, and James Southerland is a 6-foot-8 sharpshooter, which must be nice to have -- but their best quality is how well they chase down their own misses. For the season, Syracuse is grabbing 39 percent of their available offensive rebounds, ranking eighth in the country. If you can somehow keep them off the glass, you can stall their offense long enough to keep pace.
3. Keep Michael Carter-Williams out of the lane. "He is playing at such a very, very high level, so big and so long and so smart and so crafty," Dunphy said. "And now that he's stepping up and hitting marginal perimeter shots that maybe he didn't make earlier in the year, that really makes it difficult to play him." Even so, you'd rather not have Carter-Williams getting into the lane; once he does, he can finish floaters or find bigs for lobs or kick to the corner and wing to Brandon Triche or Southerland. He has to be kept in front, and constantly encouraged to shoot. If he's making them, just tip your cap and go the other way.
4. Trademark set: "I don't think they have any signature looks, so to speak," Dunphy said. "On some level it's give it to Carter-Williams and let him go make a play." Indeed, if there is one trademark of Boeheim offenses, it's that he puts the ball in the hands of his talented stars in a position where they can maximize their impact on the game -- regardless of where that position is, or who those players may be. (There's this, I suppose, but I'm pretty sure every team in the country runs some form of that.)
When Syracuse is on defense
1. Take care of the ball. "The first thing I was worried about when we played them was even getting the ball to the wing without turning it over," Dunphy said. I chuckled when he said this, because it seemed humorous; of course you can pass the ball from the top of the key to the wing, right? But his point, that even "entering the ball into an offense" was a challenge against the Orange's length, is well taken. The zone wouldn't work as well as it does without Syracuse's preternatural ability to invade passing lanes and deflect what seem like very basic and even nonthreatening paths from Point A to Point B. Trying to get the ball to one of the zone's traditional weak spots -- the short corner or the high post -- is an even greater challenge.
You don't have to have scouting tape to review for yourself; you can watch Syracuse's four tournament game replays on the NCAA site. Even a few possessions of the Marquette game tell the tale: The Golden Eagles swung the ball back and forth, side to side, over and over again, constantly looking for a point of entry. The whole defense moves as one, particularly out front, where Carter-Williams and Triche take turns sliding from the top of the key to the wing, playing at the perfect distance between the outside shooter and the player trying to catch an entry at the high post. It's almost mesmerizing, which is where the Orange's high forced turnover rate (23.6 percent of opponents' possessions) begins. "They don't separate themselves much," Dunphy said. "They were as on top of their game as they are now, and we tried to spread them and just make simple point to wing passes. We were just hoping to complete that."
2. Pick your poison. Few teams manage to block shots, create steals and guard the perimeter with the same remarkable simultaneous effort as the Orange, and even this Orange team is able and beyond: Syracuse ranks fourth in the country in opponents' effective field goal percentage, 19th in turnover rate, second in 3-point FG percentage, 19th inside the arc, first in block rate (19.4 percent) and seventh in steals percentage (13.7), which all together essentially means that the Orange protect the rim, create steals and guard first-shot opportunities better than any team in the country. The only vulnerability is on the boards. This season, the Orange have allowed opponents to grab a prohibitively high 34.3 percent of available rebounds, which, when you look at the rest of their sturdy makeup, might tempt a coach into going all in on the offensive glass and trying to scrum in the paint for 40 minutes. But even that requires a prohibitive trade-off. "Once you get that offensive guy to the front of the rim, you open yourself up to a long rebound, and when they beat you down the floor, they are likely to score," Dunphy said, in one of the understatements of the week.
3. Pray. On Monday's ESPNU College Basketball podcast, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey told Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg he thought his team as a rule needed to make at least eight 3s against Syracuse to have a chance. "I wouldn't disagree with Mike's philosophy on that," Dunphy said. "When you do get an open look, and there's not that many of those opportunities, you have to convert. But with those long arms flying at you, what appears to be a good look sometimes is not really as good as you think it is."
The other option is trying to beat the Orange on the low block, which didn't exactly go so well for Cody Zeller (or his draft stock). "You could see in the Indiana game Zeller was trying to finish at the rim, and that size is just so dominant they were changing every shot," Dunphy said. "Trying to finish at the rim against these guys is just so, so hard." So, just to review, you can try to push it into the low block against the best shot-blocking team in the country. Or you can hang out by the 3-point line and hope things go your way, even as you're fully aware Syracuse's 3-point defense remains alive and well. So, you know, do what Ron Baker did: Make a few shots.
Defensive style: Against Le Moyne? Man to man. Against everyone else? Some zone you've probably heard of.
Takeaways: You can understand why it must be frustrating for opposing coaches to play Syracuse. Even to my distant perspective, it feels like there must be some sort of cheat code here, some sequence of conclusions that could lead us to the ultimate 2-3 zone breakdown, something to crack. Instead, this is the same old Boeheim: that same old 2-3 zone, the same (relatively) laissez-faire offensive accommodations, the same old symbiotic relationship between the two. But coaches, who spend most of their time doing exactly what we're doing right now, must still bang their heads against the wall even 30 years later looking for a human flaw in the shiny spaceship.
It doesn't exist. The Orange do a bit of everything well on the defensive end, so well they haven't had to worry much about scoring even as their offense has been just slightly paltry for much of the season. They shuffle in that zone and hover over shooters and collapse into the middle and rebound the ball and it's all airtight, every movement seemingly tied to the next, glued shut by players with dreams that shouldn't be allowed. You see it all coming -- Boeheim is going to get really good players and give them some freedom on offense and turn them into that -- but you can't stop it.
"We are what we are," Boeheim said last weekend. "We play the way we play."