How to beat the Syracuse zone: an oral history by the Duke Blue Devils

lkeeley@newsobserver.comJanuary 30, 2014 

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    Strength on strength

    Duke has made 194 3-pointers this season, sixth most in the country. It’s shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc, fifth best in the country. Syracuse’s zone defense usually makes it tough on smaller shooters, but Duke will counter with 6-5 Andre Dawkins, 6-8 Jabari Parker and 6-8 Rodney Hood.

    A tale of the tape of Duke’s offensive averages vs. Syracuse’s defensive averages:

    81.5Points per game57.8
    47.2Field goal pct.40.8
    41.43-point pct.33.2
    9.23-pointers per game6.9

So Syracuse plays a 2-3 zone, if you haven’t heard. The Orange’s coach, Jim Boeheim, has been at the helm for 37 years, and his teams have exclusively played zone since 1996. They’re pretty good at it and, at this point, recruit players that fit the system: Length is the most prized attribute, especially in terms of reach and, for the back line, including the rim protector in the middle, height. This year, the Orange ranks second nationally in block and steal percentages and seventh in turnover percentage (lots of long arms to pass and shoot through for opponents).

This will be Duke’s first look at the Syracuse zone since 1998. Here is how the Blue Devils plan to beat it.


Former Big East veteran (and Duke assistant), Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey: “You can say all you want, but it’s a big mental hurdle first. You can’t simulate it in practice because you don’t have enough long guys to play it against. And they’ve got length in all those positions. But it will be a problem because it’s talked about as a problem so publicly, and kids have heard it’s a problem, so what I’ve always tried to do in two or three days, you try and diffuse the psychological hurdle that’s been out there by the media.”

Part 1: Finding the weak spot (the high post, in the middle)

Amile Jefferson: “They’re a big, long team, and the way to beat the zone is to get the ball into the middle. That’s something we’ve been working on and we’re going to have to execute.”

Rodney Hood: “I know their game plan is going to be to take us off the 3-point line, especially when Andre (Dawkins) comes in the game. We’ve just got to be able to get the ball in the middle, stay away from the spots where we’re not going to be successful because they have shot blockers, like staying away from the baseline.

“Amile does a great job. I can go there. Jabari (Parker) can go there. When Jabari goes there, it’s more to score. But I think me and Amile will be playing in and out of the middle. But things can change. We’ll play a motion, everybody moving and cutting, so anybody can be in that position.”

Part 2: Constant passing

Jefferson: “When you hold the ball too long, they can trap you, they can get set, and it gives them time. They can see everything, especially those big wings in the back. If you’re not moving the ball, making pass fakes, making the zone move, then they’re just sitting there being long and taking up the whole court.”

Hood: “We can’t beat ourselves and turn the ball over. We can’t throw bounce passes and stuff like that because they’re very catty and they block shots. It’s a good zone, but we just have to be sharp.”

Parker: “If you move it around the arc and get a lot of swings, then you’re able to penetrate the gaps as it starts to spread out. That’s what our scout is, just to move the ball around.”

Part 3: 3-point shooting

Dawkins: “With their zone, it’s different than most zones. They’re not going to be wide-open looks like there would be in some other zones. We’ve all got to be ready. When we do get looks, we have to be ready to shoot. We’ll have to get them off fairly quickly because of their athleticism on the wings.

“Syracuse has always had pretty athletic guys on the wings, and they play a lot higher up than most zones do. So when you get it on the wing, they’re right there. And when we do swing it, they’re quick and athletic enough to get out there in a hurry. You’ve got to be down and ready to get your shot off quickly.”

Part 4: Rebound on the offensive glass

Jefferson: “When you play a zone, you’re covering a certain area. If you can get into the gaps of those areas where it’s like no-man’s land, then it will be easier for us to rebound. If our wings coming from the 3-point line have running head starts to the rim, that will make it easier for the bigs, if they can get their hands on balls and keep the balls alive; tipping balls out will really help us.

“It’s not mainly about getting the rebound, it’s about getting a hand on the ball, because in that zone, you can tip it out to teammates who can get shots. And those are really Duke shots for us. It’s just about finding gaps and getting in there and creating havoc, really.”

Tune in to ESPN at 6:30 p.m. Saturday to see how it plays out.

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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