It is one of this season’s great riddles: After going untouched for 25 consecutive games, why did Syracuse University lose five of its last seven to end the season?
While many observers point to the Orange’s tendency to disappear for long stretches offensively, the team addressed the need to play with more intensity in the 2-3 zone defense, a scheme that almost dares opponents to devise answers.
There’s no simple solution to Jim Boeheim’s defensive system – the one he runs now isn’t similar to the one the Orange ran last season during their Final Four run – which makes it so problematic and exasperating to prepare for. Western Michigan (23-9) will get the next crack at it when they face the Orange this afternoon in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Broncos, the champions from the Mid-American Conference, were cautious in comment about their game plan. MAC foe Eastern Michigan, coached by former Syracuse assistant Rob Murphy, also runs the 2-3, and the Broncos’ Shayne Whittington said they tried to throw the ball inside and that “we’ll have a similar game plan to that.”
Playing against Eastern Michigan’s zone will help the Broncos against Syracuse. Then again, maybe it won’t.
“We see how everybody attacks the 2-3 zone,” Boeheim said. “We’ve seen everybody this year who plays against the 2-3 zone. So we see everybody, what they try to do, and most people do similar things. But everybody plays against a 2-3 zone.”
Not like Boeheim’s. One major test for foes is that the Orange’s 2-3 varies, sometimes from game-to-game. The outline stays the same, but Boeheim makes limitless modifications based on personnel. They finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, holding opponents to 59.5 points per game.
But after being ousted in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament by North Carolina State last Friday, Boeheim hammered home the need to play better defensively.
“It’s been one of the best weeks of practice we’ve had so far this year,” said Syracuse forward Jerami Grant. “The intensity level went up tremendously, and we know it’s win or go home. We know that everything is on the line right now and coach has definitely been getting on us and we’ve been responding in a positive way.”
Indeed, what happens in these next few days could erase everything that has happened on the court in the last month for the Orange, who were once the nation’s top ranked team but played their way out of a No. 1 seed toward the end of the season.
“After losing a couple of games, a lot of people are writing us off,” freshman point guard Tyler Ennis said. “I think we’re in a good position now. We had a great week in practice, everyone is back and focused, and I think heading into our first game we’re in a good position.”
The problem seemed to stem from an erratic offense where only Ennis and senior C.J. Fair carried the team, but there’s evidence the defense was lacking.
“The games that we’ve lost, our defense hasn’t been that good,” Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney said. “The movement hasn’t been there, we haven’t been playing together and communicating as well and that’s what we really worked on the last week. Be a good defensive team and get back on track to where we were at the beginning of the year.”
Boston College shot 52.2 percent overall in the second half and 58.3 percent from three-point land when the Eagles handed the Orange their first loss of the season, and in their next game against Duke, the Blue Devils shot 54.2 percent in the second half.
In a 19-point loss at Virginia, the Cavaliers were 7 of 11 from long range in the second half. In the ACC Tournament, N.C. State also shot over 50 percent in the second half against the Orange.
“We weren’t flying around and we were standing around and letting people take shots,” Cooney said. “We were letting people take uncontested shots. Now we just need to do it in the game.”
Said Ennis: “The last couple of practices we’ve had guard groups and we split up position-wise and we’ve just been working on defense. Not only for Western Michigan, but for the whole tournament. I think if our defense is good, we’re going to continue to win games.”