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TNIAAM Q&A: Baye Keita talks manning the middle of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone

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We caught up with the former Orange big man.

Indiana v Syracuse Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Syracuse Orange fans are nervous about the effectiveness of the 2-3 zone defense heading into the 2017-18 season. The combination of Pascal Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe have dominated against the two Division II opponents, but will they be ready as the Orange open regular season play this week? With that in mind, we went to one of the better zone defenders in recent years, Baye Keita, to get his insight into the crucial position of center. The former Orange standout defender told us about the learning curve for the zone and his thoughts on what makes it so effective.

TNIAAM: What are the first things you are taught about playing the middle in the zone?

Baye Keita: The first things you learn about the zone is the area you are responsible for as a center. You also learn where to be based on the ball and offense. After all that has been figured out, we start working with the forwards some days and the guards the other days. This helped a lot because you get to learn about each others movements and rotations.

TNIAAM: How difficult is to pick up the responsibilities of the center position? Did you feel like you grasped what you needed in your first season, or should fans prepare to be patient with this year’s team?

BK: It is difficult to pick up the responsibilities as a center but if you have basic man to man defensive skills you will pick them up easily. I grasped most of the responsibilities of the zone during my first year. The fans need to be patient with the team and realize that every year there is a period of adjustment where the team needs to figure out their strengths and weaknesses.

TNIAAM: Do you think that having a large number of new players will create communication issues at the beginning of the year?

BK: I don’t think so because the coaching staff is really good at what they do. They will make sure the players are ready for the first game of the season. There will be small problems here and there but communication won’t be one.

TNIAAM: How important is trust to the effectiveness of the zone?

BK: Trust is everything in the zone. When I was at Syracuse, the guards trusted me and vice versa. When the five players on the floor trust each other the zone is at its best. In order for the zone to be effective, you need high level of trust, communication and of course size.

Syracuse v Marquette Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

TNIAAM: Do you adjust your positioning based on who is playing the high post on offense? If so, what does the center need to do to force that player to either shoot/pass?

BK: Every game I had to adjust on what team we were playing. Based on the scouting report we know what to do when a specific player gets the ball in the high post. For example when we played Duke we knew Plumlee wasn’t going to shot the ball but we had to go up as soon as Jabari Parker received the ball in the high post. By knowing exactly when I am going or staying low, the forwards and guards were ready to make the rotation wherever the pass went.

TNIAAM: The game against Indiana in the Sweet 16 seemed to be the zone working at its best, what was it about that night that made you guys so dominant?

BK: That game was a perfect example of how efficient the zone is and can be. That day we had the size and our level of communication was at the highest I have seen it throughout my 4 years in Syracuse. We were like a well-oiled engine that day.

Indiana v Syracuse Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

TNIAAM: Was there another game in your career where you felt as though the opponent was afraid to take it inside against the interior of the zone like the Hoosiers seemed in that one?

BK: We had a handful of games where our opponents were not ready and worried about the zone. Most teams were scared of the zone because they knew once the ball went inside it will never come out because of the traps and our size.

TNIAAM: Coach Boeheim said this about Bourama: “Bourama is most like Baye Moussa Keita of any player we've ever had. He's like him but he's a better offensive player.” Is Coach downplaying your offensive ability there?

BK: I don’t think he is downplaying my offensive game at all. When I was in Syracuse coach needed me to play defense and not score. I knew my role as a player and did exactly that. I played two years overseas before my injury and got to show my offensive skills at a high level. I saw Bourama at practice when I was in Syracuse, he is no doubt a good player and I wish him all the best.

Thanks to Baye for taking the time to tell us more about playing the middle of the zone. We wish him all the best in his work with the NBA.