Michigan balance, hot early shooting enough to solve Syracuse’s 2-3 zone
April 10, 2013
By FOSTER LANDER
ATLANTA — Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense is no mystery. Switching to the scheme almost exclusively in 2003 helped Jim Boeheim win his and Syracuse’s first and only NCAA title.
Yet, Boeheim’s zone had flummoxed all four of Syracuse’s NCAA tournament foes before Saturday’s national semifinal matchup with Michigan. Their opponents had shot just 28.9 percent from the floor overall and 15.2 percent from 3-point range.
With long, athletic players like 6-foot-6 point guard Michael Carter-Williams, 6-foot-4 Brandon Triche, and 6-foot-8 forward C.J. Fair, all of whom Boeheim recruited because of their fit in his 2-3 zone, Syracuse forced opponents away from the basket and into contested 3-pointers.
The Orange only play one freshman (Jerami Grant) significant minutes. Triche has started 145 consecutive games, forward James Southerland is a senior, Fair is a junior and Carter-Williams and 6-foot-9 Rakeem Christmas are both sophomores.
With superior athletes who understand the nuances of Boeheim’s scheme, the Orange took the 2-3 zone defense to an elite level, and the defense took Syracuse to its first Final Four since 2003.
“We must face facts. We haven’t seen a zone like that,” Indiana coach Tom Crean told reporters after the Hoosiers’ 61-50 Sweet 16 loss to Syracuse.
“We practice the zone every day,” Carter-Williams said Friday. “We’ve given a lot of teams trouble with it. It’s just nice to go out there and frustrate teams and have them turn the ball over.”
The Orange oozed confidence during Friday’s media sessions. Triche was the most outspoken of the group: “We think we’ve got mismatches at every position,” he said.
Through four NCAA tournament games, the numbers backed Triche up. The Orange were the first team since the shot clock was instituted in 1986 to hold three tournament opponents — Montana (34 points), Indiana (50), and Marquette (39) — under 50 points. Those same three teams finished with more turnovers than made field goals.
Wolverines flip the script
The Wolverines saw a typical Syracuse defensive effort Saturday night, one not unlike the dominant displays that earned the Orange a Final Four berth.
Syracuse’s zone bothered Michigan in the second half — the Wolverines made just two of their eight 3-point attempts and committed eight of their 10 turnovers.
“They pushed their zone out a little bit further,” Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “It’s kind of tough when you have shooters trying to shoot closer to the 3-point line and they push you out to the NBA 3-point line … They were way more active and aggressive and tried to do a great job of containing us.”
Added Wolverines point guard Trey Burke: “Well, I just think they’re magnificent in that zone. They have a lot of length. It’s tough to try to get the ball into the middle. You think something’s open, it may not be … They do a good job of turning turnovers into touchdowns. We gave up some good looks, sometimes we shot some looks that weren’t necessarily there.”
However, Michigan’s 36-point first-half outburst provided enough cushion to withstand a more active Syracuse zone late in the contest and hang on for a 61-56 win. Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert, two unheralded freshman guards, provided major boosts for the Wolverines with two 3-pointers apiece in the first half. Albrecht scored all six of his points during a key 15-3 Michigan run as the Wolverines closed out the opening stanza with an 11 point lead.
Triche was hesitant to credit Michigan for their first half offensive success.
“Every time they hit a shot, it was because of what we did, not what they did,” he said. “They were doing the same plays, but we didn’t get to the spots we needed to. When you’re active, it’s just a stupid shot. When you’re not active and they’ve got time to actually look at the basket and get their feet set, those guys have range.”
Typically, the holes in a 2-3 zone exist at the free-throw line and in the short corner (along the baseline). It’s designed to impede opponents’ ability to get close to the basket and force jump shots. Because Syracuse had the length to contest 3-pointers, openings were scarce.
The difference for Michigan was freshman center Mitch McGary’s ability to catch passes in the middle of the Syracuse zone, amidst swatting hands and waving arms, and make intelligent decisions.
“We knew that was an area that we might be able to exploit if we could pass out of there,” Wolverines coach John Beilein said. “We did so many passing drills this year with Mitch pivoting. We say, catch, pivot, peek, make a pass. He did a great job … He’s a big target in there, as well.”
McGary dished a career-high six assists when Orange defenders left wing players open to pressure him, and knocked down several open mid-range jumpers on his way to 10 points.
“Once we got in the high post, we got some good looks,” McGary said. “Shots weren’t falling the way we wanted them. Once we got second looks, they started falling.”
Michigan defense the difference
Michigan reversed the narrative on Syracuse.
Throughout the regular season, Syracuse thrived on transition opportunities created by their swarming defense and second-chance points.
Michigan limited the Orange to just two fast-break points and outscored Syracuse off turnovers and second-chance opportunities. Without their usual advantage in those areas, the Orange struggled to score in the half-court.
The Orange shot just 3-14 from 3-point range and 42 percent from the field. “We have not shot the ball well from three this year,” Boeheim said. “In our losses, we’re shooting about 20% from the three. It hasn’t been something that we’ve been really good on. We try not to take a lot of threes. But we had good looks.”
C.J. Fair posted 22 points for Syracuse, but Triche was the only other player in double figures for the Orange.
On a night when Burke (1-8 FG), freshman guard Nik Stauskas (zero made 3-pointers) and Hardaway Jr. (4-16 FG) struggled shooting the ball, the Wolverines needed a strong defensive effort.
“At the end of the day, it wasn’t offense,” Burke said. “A lot of us didn’t have good shooting nights. But it was defense that allowed us to advance.”