Wiedmer: Syracuse in a zone all its own

Wiedmer: Syracuse in a zone all its own

April 6th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA - It sounds simple. As if every college basketball team should be able to do it to Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense.

Just shoot holes in it. Like an alibi. Or knowing how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall, for all you Sgt. Pepper buffs.

"That's really the most effective way to break the zone -- just go out there and hit shots," Michigan freshman guard Nik Stauskas said Friday afternoon, a little less than 30 hours before the Wolverines were to face the Orange in tonight's second Final Four semifinal.

"Every time a team has run a 2-3 zone against us, I feel like we've done a pretty good job against it."

Stauskas knows his team. Michigan has shot 38.5 percent from the 3-point line this season. In NCAA tournament play, that number has soared to 40 percent. Against Florida last weekend in the South Regional final, that number swelled to 53 percent (10-of-19).

But this much is also true: Nothing ... prepares ... you ... for ... Syracuse's ... zone. Nothing.

Over four NCAA tourney games, the 'Cuse has allowed its four foes to hit 7 of 48 triples (14.6 percent). The Orange basically have surrended double that (28 percent) for the season, but that still ranks second nationally, one-tenth of a percentage point from tying New Hampshire.

Yet that only scratches the surface of how coach Jim Boeheim's zone has flummoxed all foes in this NCAA tournament. To wit:

1) Syracuse is the first team to hold three opponents under 50 points in the "shot-clock era" (1986 forward).

2) Marquette's 39 points in last week's East Regional final was the fewest ever for a team in a regional final in the shot-clock era.

3) Three of the Orange's four tourney opponents to date (Montana, Indiana and Marquette) have finished with more turnovers than baskets.

"[Boeheim] is one of the greatest minds in basketball," Michigan coach John Beilein said Thursday.

But he added this Friday: "I used to play the same 2-3 zone for a long time. Everybody in upstate New York did."

So maybe he does know how to beat the zone no one else has been able to touch in the tournament. Maybe Beilein's every bit as smart as Boeheim.

And given the fact that Wolverines sophomore point guard Trey Burke was just named The Associated Press player of the year, maybe Beilein also has better players than the Orange, which often translates to victory when the coaches are fairly equal.

"Western Illinois was his first game [last year]," Beilein explained of Burke's meteoric maturation process. "A fifth-year player had a great game against him. We're flying out to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational a few days later and I thought, 'This is going to be tough having a freshman point guard.' Then he's one of the best players on the court against Duke, UCLA and Memphis. I thought, 'This might not be such a bad year after all.'"

Last year Burke led the Wolverines to the NCAA tourney, averaging nearly 16 points in Big Ten play. That figure jumped to 20.2 in conference action this season, Michigan reaching No. 1 in the nation at one point.

But the freshmen Stauskas and center Mitch McGary also have helped hugely this postseason. Stauskas was 6-of-6 from the floor in the victory over Florida. McGary -- inserted into the starting lineup at the start of NCAA play -- has averaged 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds the past four games after losing more than 20 pounds during the season.

"I have a sweet tooth," McGary said. "I've never had any cavities, but I love eating candy. I used to eat a lot of junk food and my metabolism slowed down. Now I'm at 255 and I want to keep losing weight and build muscle."

On paper, it looks like the sweetest chess match of the tournament, Boeheim's "D" against Beilein's "O." May the best grease board win.

Yet players must still execute their coach's instructions, and Syracuse's players sound as if this one's in the bag.

"We do a great job of making people take tough shots," Orange senior sharpshooter James Southerland said.

They do a better job of making people miss them, which is why Syracuse and Louisville -- departing Big East brothers or upcoming Atlantic Coast Conference bros, take your pick -- should both reach Monday's final.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com