It was frustrating for the Hoyas watching a 14-0 lead evaporate. It was frustrating that virtually every attempt to puncture the Orange’s 2-3 zone resulted in a turnover. It was frustrating that the few times the Hoyas managed to reach the rim with the ball, Syracuse’s Wesley Johnson was there to swat the shot away.
Simply put, it’s rather frustrating when your biggest rival is a legitimate national title contender. Now the Hoyas have a lot to work on before the Orange visit Washington, D.C. for their second matchup Feb.18. And it starts with breaking down the 2-3 zone.
This year, perhaps more than any other I can recall, Syracuse features a lineup of long-armed defenders that deny passing lanes with their active, lanky arms. That alone limits the options for a teams trying to move the ball against them, isolating them to the perimeter and forcing them into taking three-pointers rather than higher percentage shots near the hoop. Now add in another degree of difficulty. Every time a pass pushes the ball to a corner or too close to the sidelines, Syracuse defenders will try to double team the ballhandler to force a turnover.
The zone is not known for its ability to force steals. That much is evident from the fact that Syracuse, who runs the 2-3 zone as well as any team in the nation, has only ranked in the top 50 for steal percentage once since 2004 (No. 31 in 2006). This season, they’re No. 2 with a mark of 15.5 percent.
Monday night, Syracuse forced 19 turnovers from Georgetown, and the Hoyas never once looked comfortable breaking the zone. Part of that was personnel. Julian Vaughn has been terrific this season, growing into a solid frontcourt sidekick for Greg Monroe. But his slow decision-making with the basketball on Monday allowed the Orange defenders to swarm him, leading to a pair of turnovers and just two field goal attempts. Freshmen Jerrelle Benimon and Hollis Thompson seemed a little overmatched off the bench. And Monroe? The big man celebrated nationally for his ability to distribute the basketball to open teammates? He finished with zero assists and six turnovers before fouling out.
The second part of the Hoyas’ ineptitude against the zone was their tentative approach. Georgetown would often set up their three guards in an umbrella around the perimeter of the zone and probe it for openings. You can’t do that against this zone. If you’re slow moving the basketball, if you’re slow making decisions, it allows the defenders to get set and take away driving and passing lanes, or worse, trap the ball handler.
You have to attack this zone. You have to make it move. Make the defenders commit and then have players cutting to fill the area vacated by that defender. You can’t station players on the perimeter and expect to beat Syracuse with lob passes.
I realize I’m no basketball coach, but I sketched this out at a bar with five French fries and a cherry tomato and I can tell you this is the right approach. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at Pittsburgh then.
The Panthers are the only team to top the Orange this season. And they did it at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. Georgetown fans actually got a glimpse of how the Panthers pulled off their upset when the Hoyas clashed with them a week ago. Pitt’s ball movement is outrageously fast. Their passes are decisive, their drives are aggressive and they force the defense to react to them. This is what kept Georgetown off balance for most of the game. Against Syracuse, Pitt was not precise, with 18 turnovers, but they shot 44.2 percent from the floor and attempted 36 free throws. That last part is key because it usually means the defense was committing those fouls because defenders were out of position. Georgetown toed the foul line just 11 times. And before anyone even mentions referee bias, two of the three officials were the same Monday as in Pitt’s upset win.
To be sure, Georgetown received Syracuse’s best effort on Monday, but the Hoyas will have to be much sharper if they hope to win the second half of the series. If they continue to pass the ball around the perimeter and don’t make their defenders move, it’s safe to predict the result will be similarly frustrating.