CHAPEL HILL — At times in the summer, when college basketball coaches commingle at recruiting events and other functions, Mike Brey found himself receiving questions about how best to play against Syracuses vaunted 2-3 zone defense, the one that coach Jim Boeheim has made famous.
Brey, the coach at Notre Dame, has plenty of experience preparing his teams for the Syracuse zone. He faced it often while Notre Dame and Syracuse were in the Big East, and Brey will continue to see plenty of it now that the teams are in the ACC.
Brey earlier this week wouldnt say exactly which ACC coaches asked him for advice. But they did come to him, seeking wisdom and insight about a defense that has flummoxed its opposition for about three decades a defense that has been the foundation of Boeheims long, successful tenure at Syracuse.
I think your mental preparation with your kids is (important) as much as any physical stuff you do or X and O stuff you do, because playing against that over 40 minutes theres a different kind of focus as far as being good with the ball and pass-faking and when to get into gaps, Brey said of the Syracuse zone, which North Carolina will face Saturday in the Carrier Dome.
Brey said it was funny, the things people say about Syracuses zone defense, and how to go about playing against it. He broke down the zone for a bit, and spoke of the importance of ball movement and working passes in and out of the corners. But then Brey broke it down simply.
What I always try to get our guys when weve had success, youve got to make double-digit 3s, Brey said. Youve got to have your shooters looser than (heck), and ready to let it rip.
A balanced approach
If thats the best way to beat Syracuses zone and opinions on that vary then things dont bode well for UNC. The Tar Heels, 0-2 in the ACC for the second consecutive season, are among the least productive perimeter shooting teams in the nation.
UNC ranks 346th nationally, out of 351 teams, in both 3-point attempts and made 3-pointers. Only 13.6 percent of the Tar Heels points have come off 3s, and no team has generated a lower percentage of its points from 3-pointers.
Roy Williams, the Tar Heels coach, doesnt believe that successful perimeter shooting is the only way to combat Syracuses zone. He prefers a more balanced philosophy which is reflective of his overall offensive approach and he said Friday that being too reliant on the outside shot could be counterproductive, too.
Youve got to be able to get inside, because if youre just trying to make outside shots, they just extend it even more, Williams said. So instead of shooting from your 3-point line, youre shooting from the NBA 3-point line, and then youre shooting from somebody elses 3-point line, and then youre shooting from half court.
So I still think youve got to have good balance.
With some of his teams at UNC, Williams could have afforded to look ahead a little bit and prepare in advance for Syracuses zone defense. These Tar Heels, though, didnt have that luxury, he said.
That means UNC began working on Syracuses zone on Thursday, a day after the Tar Heels disappointing, sloppy 63-57 loss against Miami. The Hurricanes used a zone defense, too, though Syracuses is more complex.
Still, Williams and his team is hoping what they experienced on Wednesday night can be beneficial. J.P. Tokoto, UNCs sophomore forward, said Friday that the Tar Heels learned a lesson Wednesday in the importance of moving effectively without the ball against the zone. UNC was too stagnant.
I know for myself, I was kind of stagnant at points during the game, Tokoto said. And theres things, looking at film, that I could have done differently. Moving in the zone, instead of just saying stagnant, moving around the perimeter. So there are weak points in the zone that theyre playing. So hopefully we can exploit them.
A top defense
Therein lies the challenge. The fundamentals of Syracuses zone havent changed much over the years. The principles are still the same, and Boeheim is reliant, as always, on tall, lanky players who can disrupt passes with their athleticism and length.
As usual, Syracuse ranks near the top nationally in fewest points allowed per game. The Orange have surrendered an average of 59.3 12th fewest in the nation. Syracuse ranked 20th nationally in that category last season, and 32nd the season before that.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who nine years ago selected Boeheim to be an assistant coach on the U.S. national team, said earlier this week that Syracuses zone this year might be more difficult than usual because of the Oranges length and athleticism on the wing.
C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant are a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards with enviable range and wingspan. They are the kind of athletes that seem a perfect fit for Boeheims version of the 2-3 zone.
His zone is better the longer the players and the more experienced players he has, Krzyzewski said. And this particular team, when you have your two best players on those wings, in Grant and Fair, you know you have two of the better players in the country, and really long athletes.
Krzyzewski is well-versed in Syracuses zone after working with Boeheim for so many years on the national team. Williams, too, has plenty of experience against it. His final game at Kansas, in the 2003 NCAA tournament final, was a loss to Syracuse.
We had a great game offensively, Williams said. They still won the game. But we shot a great percentage against it and got to the free throw line. We didnt make very many free throws. And then weve had other games where we have been terrible against it.
Williams on Saturday will be seeking a balance. If the Tar Heels are successful on the perimeter, that could open things up more on the inside for Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks. Conversely, if UNC can work the ball on the inside, it could open up more outside shots.
Taking away the middle of the post, though, is what Boeheims zone is designed to do.
Theres not going to be much post play (against them), so you have to hope your guys make some shots, said Kemba Walker, the Charlotte Bobcats guard who played against Syracuse when he wasat Connecticut from 2008-2011. And you have to penetrate enough to find some others. You have to have a complete game to beat those guys.
UNC has lacked those recently. After the Tar Heels loss against Miami on Wednesday night, Williams said he was at his lowest point mentally.
He stood by that assessment Friday, yet he seemed to be in a more jovial mood. The prospect of teaching his players how to effectively execute against a defense theyd never seen before appeared to energize him.
We cant simulate in practice what they have because we dont have those kinds of guys on our blue show team, Williams said, referring to a group of walk-ons and other sparingly used reserves. But were going to work on it some more today.
If I could get my club to play zone defense like that, I wouldnt ever play man to man, either, especially with the new rules that we have now.
Staff Writer Rick Bonnell contributed to this report.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter