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ACC Media Day: Tyus Battle says Syracuse’s success will depend on its defense

Tyus Battle spoke to SB Nation/Streaking the Lawn’s Caroline Darney about Syracuse regaining its defensive identity.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Media Day Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange’s 2016-17 nightmare peaked at Boston College, long-time residents of the ACC’s basement. The game encapsulated a season of lost potential due to how the Orange played in their own end. BC, eventually finishing a horrific 2-16 in conference, 9-23 overall, tore Syracuse to shreds, 96-81.

Jim Boeheim abandoned the zone, only to see attempts at pressing and man-to-man work about as well as the 2-3 did on that day. Not at all. Similarly, the team was embarrassed by St. John’s in a 33-point loss just a couple weeks earlier.

Those two games were rock bottom, forcing Boeheim to call out his team’s prowess on D.

"We haven't had a good defensive effort against anybody," Boeheim said after the game. “

He knew then if they didn’t get better on defense the season wouldn’t either, and it didn’t. The Orange missed the NCAA Tournament in a year that began with a Jadakiss concert and flashy introductions in front of massive video boards and high praise from Boeheim. Expectations are modest one year later, with last week’s season-opening orange/white scrimmage only attracting a few hundred fans.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Tyus Battle felt the team lose its identity in his first campaign, and knows exactly where the team needs to look to bounce back. SB Nation/Streaking the Lawn’s Caroline Darney spoke with him at ACC Media Day in Charlotte and he noted the best teams in school history have defended well. Now this one has to follow to achieve similar success.

“We work so hard in our 2-3, people don't realize how tiring it is, we're constantly moving,” Battle said. “So when we run down the shot clock and get a huge block or a huge steal, and then go down the other end and get a bucket. No better feeling than that... it just builds a lot of momentum for us."

He didn’t get that feeling often in his freshman season, posting a 109 defensive rating as the team fell to 10th in points allowed in ACC play. The Final Four team in 2016 ranked 30th in the nation, fourth in the ACC in the same category.

The questions about the team’s 2-3 zone showered Battle, as well as Frank Howard, who represented the team on Wednesday. On the podium, he stressed the importance of defense to winning, but like Boeheim last week didn’t rule out the chance of man-to-man defense with a grin on his face.

“You never know, we might break into it,” Battle said.

In his interview with Caroline, his tone grew more serious as he hit on the intricacies of the 2-3 zone and another young team needing to learn it before the season begins. The process, a long one that often spans through March, begins gentle and grows rougher as the season goes on, he said.

Instincts, positioning and movement are the most important parts. The team drills the motions at every practice and Boeheim adds traps and other points of emphasis as flavor from decades of running the system. Battle saw other teams try to run it against them, but never with as many nuances as he sees in the Orange’s.

“(Coaches) definitely know it's a learning process,” he said. “But once the games start and you're still not getting it then they might be a little more forceful with it.”

That was the case with the BC debacle last year. Months into the season, the team still could not hold a solid zone and that left them with no foundation to win on.

NCAA Basketball: Boston U at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

But that team has different personnel. This group is taller, longer and Paschal Chukwu returning from his Dec. 17 eye injury that ended his season. Having that 7’2” presence in the middle could make all the difference, Battle said.

Howard changed his uniform number from 1 to 23 preseason to signal a new era for him personally. That’s the attitude the team is taking defensively, redefining their image around getting stops.

“We're moving together simultaneously, at the same time... we have the guys to do it, we're long, athletic,” Battle said. “It's definitely more of a traditional Syracuse 2-3 zone.”