UNC will attempt to solve Syracuse's 2-3 zone

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2014 

  • No. 2 Syracuse vs. UNC

    When: noon

    Where: Carrier Dome

    TV/Radio: ESPN/101.5-WRAL

    Projected starting lineups

    UNC (10-5, 0-2 ACC)

    G Nate Britt 6. ppg, 2.8 apg

    G Marcus Paige 17 ppg, 4.4 apg

    F J.P. Tokoto 10.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg

    F James Michael McAdoo 14.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg

    F Joel James 3.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg

    Syracuse (15-0, 2-0)

    G Trevor Cooney 13.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg

    G Tyler Ennis 11.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg

    F C.J. Fair 17.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg

    F Jerami Grant 12.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg

    C DaJuan Coleman 4.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg

    Player to watch

    Leslie McDonald, guard, North Carolina

    McDonald has averaged 11 points per game and he’s made 34.3 percent of his 3-point attempts in his six games since returning from a suspension to start the season. Those aren’t bad numbers but, even so, McDonald has yet to have a breakout game, and he has made just six of his past 25 shots from the field in UNC’s past two games. The Tar Heels need more from McDonald, especially given that Marcus Paige, the sophomore guard, has hit his first slump of the season. If there’s ever a game UNC could McDonald’s outside shooting, it’s this one against Syracuse’s difficult zone defense.

    Observations

    North Carolina is likely to try to force a quicker pace, and the Tar Heels would like to force turnovers that lead to fast break opportunities. That’s likely to be easier said than done against Syracuse, which is averaging just 9.1 turnovers per game. The Orange have allowed five or fewer fast break points in eight of their 15 games. … Syracuse has been outscored in points off turnovers just once this season, and just twice in points off of offensive rebounds. … Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is known for his 2-3 zone, and this year’s version is especially difficult – mainly because of the size and length Boeheim can utilize on the wings. … Syracuse senior forward C.J. Fair, the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, has lived up to his billing. He has scored in double figures in 11 consecutive games and is seventh in the ACC in scoring.

    Andrew Carter

— 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 Syracuse’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Boeheim’s 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 – there’s 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 Syracuse’s 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 we’ve had success, you’ve got to make double-digit 3s,” Brey said. “You’ve got to have your shooters looser than (heck), and ready to let it rip.”

A balanced approach

If that’s the best way to beat Syracuse’s zone – and opinions on that vary – then things don’t 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, doesn’t believe that successful perimeter shooting is the only way to combat Syracuse’s 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.

“You’ve got to be able to get inside, because if you’re just trying to make outside shots, they just extend it even more,” Williams said. “So instead of shooting from your 3-point line, you’re shooting from the NBA 3-point line, and then you’re shooting from somebody else’s 3-point line, and then you’re shooting from half court.

“So I still think you’ve 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 Syracuse’s zone defense. These Tar Heels, though, didn’t have that luxury, he said.

That means UNC began working on Syracuse’s zone on Thursday, a day after the Tar Heels’ disappointing, sloppy 63-57 loss against Miami. The Hurricanes used a zone defense, too, though Syracuse’s is more complex.

Still, Williams and his team is hoping what they experienced on Wednesday night can be beneficial. J.P. Tokoto, UNC’s 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 there’s 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 they’re playing. So hopefully we can exploit them.”

A top defense

Therein lies the challenge. The fundamentals of Syracuse’s zone haven’t 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 Syracuse’s zone this year might be more difficult than usual because of the Orange’s 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 Boeheim’s 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 Syracuse’s 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 didn’t make very many free throws. And then we’ve 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 Boeheim’s zone is designed to do.

“There’s 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 they’d never seen before appeared to energize him.

“We can’t simulate in practice what they have because we don’t 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 we’re going to work on it some more today. …

“If I could get my club to play zone defense like that, I wouldn’t 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

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