Cracking Cuse zone the key for Butler

SALT LAKE CITY -- Butler coach Brad Stevens says his team has faced more zone defense during the past two seasons than the previous eight seasons combined.

But Stevens admits the Bulldogs haven’t seen a zone defense as effective as Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 scheme.

“I think our guys have some familiarity with it,” Stevens said. “I will say we probably haven’t played against a zone this good. In fact, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

The No. 5-seeded Bulldogs will have to navigate their way through the 2-3 zone to upset the No. 1-seeded Orange in Thursday night’s West Regional semifinal at EnergySolutions Arena.

Even without senior forward Arinze Onuaku, who is sidelined with a right leg injury, Syracuse’s defense has never been better. In its first two NCAA victories, Syracuse held No. 16-seeded Vermont and No. 8-seeded Gonzaga to a combined 38 percent shooting and 18 percent shooting on 3-pointers. Syracuse held the Catamounts and Bulldogs to only 96 points on 140 plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said his team’s defense is effective because opponents don’t see it very often.

“The reason there aren’t good zones is because nobody plays zones,” Boeheim said. “We practice our zone. We work on it. Teams that play man-to-man don’t practice their zone. They practice it once a week and they think they can now play zone, and they’re surprised when it doesn’t work. Well, no defense would be good if you didn’t practice it. We practice it. We work on it. But any defense can be beat. The best defensive teams in the country get beat all the time.”

The Bulldogs, who have the country’s longest winning streak at 22 straight games and haven’t lost since Dec. 22, might be disciplined and accurate enough to shoot over Syracuse’s zone.

Butler made six 3-pointers or more in 25 of its 33 games and shot 40 percent or better on 3-pointers in 10 games.

“Just like any other time, if you have a layup, you try to get a layup,” Stevens said. “I think every time we take the floor, we’re just trying to figure out what’s going to work best for us with our personnel versus the defense we’re playing. We’ll try to take advantage of whatever opportunity presents itself, not go in with a specific game plan of 60 percent of your shots have to be 3s. We’ll take advantage of what’s there, while at the same time trying to get what we deem to be a great shot for Butler.”

Butler’s weapon of choice in the NCAA tournament has been the 3-pointers. In its 77-59 victory over UTEP in the first round, Butler took 50 shots and 31 of them were 3-pointers. In a 54-52 win over Murray State in the second round, the Bulldogs had 50 shots and 20 of them were 3-pointers. In fact, 51 percent of Butler’s field goals and 45.8 percent of their points have come from shots beyond the arc in two NCAA games.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Butler has scored only six points on 13 plays against zone defense in their two NCAA games. The Bulldogs were 0-for-4 on 3-pointers when facing zone defense.

“I think obviously if you can hit some 3-point shots, you’ll definitely open things up,” Butler sophomore Gordon Hayward said. “They’ll have to extend. If you can also get the ball to Matt [Howard] inside, get him some looks, we can go inside out.”

Hayward is one of four Butler players who have made at least 40 3-pointers this season.

But the Bulldogs haven’t faced a zone defense as potent as Syracuse’s. The Orange start five players who are taller than 6-foot-2.

“We do what we do all year when it comes to our zone,” Orange guard Scoop Jardine said. “We just try to get out to a shooter. Knowing our personnel is the most important thing. If we are active and we are moving, I don’t care what team we play.”