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Syracuse basketball should ditch the 2-3 zone and play man-to-man


NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Boston College Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, hear me out here. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that back in October I wrote a piece stating Syracuse shouldn’t play a minute of man-to-man defense. That was back when this team was forecasted to be a Final Four contender and on paper appeared to have the makings of a legitimate title contender. The local and national media alike all had Syracuse penciled in for the big dance, too. So what’s changed?

Well if you’ve been in hibernation — much like the Syracuse zone — the Orange has worked itself into an 8-6 hole and has gone winless against Power 5 teams. The flaws with the team are abundant, but by and large the team’s biggest issue is the defense.

“I don’t really have a good explanation for it. I think they’re working hard, I think they’re trying to do what we want them to do, but we’re not reading where the shooters are and if you give guys open shots in college basketball they’re going to make them,”

Jim Boeheim said following Syracuse’s 96-81 loss at Boston College. That’s been the issue all season. Syracuse has failed to close out on shooters and defend the high-post. That’s a recipe for disaster for any zone defense, so what gives?

“We’ve always done it with our defense. We’ve always held people below their three-point averages usually by significant margins and this team can’t do that,” Boeheim opined.

So if this team can’t do that, why does it continue to play 2-3 zone? A traditional, non-Syracuse 2-3 zone gives up threes but Boeheim’s zone usually takes away threes and sacrifices offensive rebounds. But if this team cannot hold teams below their respective three-point average (and allows teams to shoot 61.5 percent from distance like it did against BC), why even play a 2-3?

“Now we’ve played 14 games. If our defense wasn’t going to get better by now, it’s a long-shot that it’s going to get a lot better. It’s not just a little bit off it’s so far off that it almost looks like we haven’t worked on the defensive end and we’ve spent most of our time there,” Boeheim added.

Again, if the Syracuse 2-3 zone is that horrid (which it is) and is so far off that it looks like it hasn’t even been worked on in practice, why continue to play it?

I’m not saying to abandon the zone entirely. I’m not even saying to play man-to-man next season. But for this team and in this year, why not convert mostly to man and mix in zone here and there?


Of course, Boeheim would likely argue that Syracuse hasn’t practiced man-to-man much, if at all, all season and it would be a worse defensive team.

“That was just desperation. We cannot play man-to-man defense. We can’t press either. Those are two things we can’t do,” Boeheim said in regards to going man in the waning minutes of the Boston College game.

But would playing man-to-man really be worse than playing zone? If Syracuse went out and played man-to-man against BC without even practicing, would it still have given up a school record 16 threes?

The talent is there. On paper this looked like a tremendous team before the season started. Individually these guys are all good players and it’s not like it would be their first time playing man-to-man. Throughout their playing careers every Syracuse player has played man. Maybe not in a Syracuse uniform, but elsewhere. Of course you can delve into the minutiae of man in terms of how to defend ball and off ball screens, who should and should not switch, etc. But honestly speaking, would this team really be in a worse position than it is already by playing man-to-man?

I think not.

If this Syracuse team continues to play zone and it doesn’t get a lot better, which Boeheim said it’s a long-shot, where does this team finish in the ACC? If the zone gets marginally better, can it finish at 7-11 in conference the way it’s playing right now? Even that seems like a stretch at this point.

But who cares if it does? At this juncture, 7-11 doesn’t get you to the NIT let alone the NCAA Tournament. And if that’s the case, why not try man? Worst case scenario is that man-to-man defense turns out to be a failed experiment and Syracuse doesn’t make either tournament, which it’s already on track to do if it sticks in zone.

It’s apropos of the Elite Eight game against Virginia last year. If Syracuse stayed in zone, Virginia would have been in the Final Four. But Syracuse chose to take a risk and put on the press. It could have lost by 20+ or mounted a comeback and I think we all know how that game concluded. It’s time for Syracuse and Jim Boeheim to take another risk. What’s the worst that could happen?