Jim Boeheim has earned many a right through 43 years of winning with the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team. Changing his mind is the baseline. Many coaches in college hoops have their words picked with a comb for inconsistency. The ones with their name on the court receive more leeway.
This November marks 10 years since Le Moyne left Boeheim’s court victorious over Syracuse. Boeheim shunned man defense after it foiled the second half of that 82-79 exhibition loss.
He’s never looked back, despite teasing man if only to craft uncertainty. Every night he courted two guards shifting in alignment, a center planted beneath the basket and forwards sliding toward the arc. The zone became as Syracuse as hills and fluffy white substances.
While presses, extensions and other intricacies entered the equation, the Orange remain the most consistent user of zone defense (with Washington emerging). Experimentation in Italy and more man-to-man quotes initially registered as more noise, until Boeheim extended the conversation into September with Seth Davis.
Boeheim wrote in his autobiography he would never leap into man out of timeout. “It would confuse the hell out of Doug Gottlieb.”
Well, Doug, prepare for confusion during Syracuse’s non-conference slate.
The Orange will feature man on 15-20% of their possessions this year. When Boeheim penned Bleeding Orange in 2014, a retirement window existed. Man-to-man only played a role in reminiscing. He couldn’t foreshadow coaching into the 2020s then. A development of that scale — with shifts in the program and sport — allows for a shift between zone and man that he once scoffed at.
For people around the program as short as I’ve been, it only feels like Syracuse has ever played zone. Boeheim actually cut his teeth with man defenses that occasionally showed zone looks in the 1980s. That probably isn’t news. What surprised me was his longing for man-to-man back in 2014.
“Truth be told, I’d still like to coach man-to-man,” Boeheim wrote. “I don’t love playing zone all the time, because it does have an effect on your offense.”
He explained how guarding for 30 seconds wears down his unit when they turn back toward offense. It made his offense deliberate. Plodding. The Orange offense we watched sink toward the bottom of the NCAA in the seasons following the book.
Boeheim toyed with presses to generate scoring through the deadest stretches. Those sets featured man-to-man attributes and crafted one of the great moments in program history — the Virginia Elite 8 comeback. Sanctions and recruiting lulls seeped talent. Then Paschal Chukwu, Marek Dolezaj and long-armed recruits arrived that fit perfectly in the zone.
The death of that era births new possibilities. The NCAA kicked the three-point line back to further space the game. SU features a pace-oriented point guard, shooters that need more possessions to maximize their scoring and a front court lacking traditional rim protectors behind Bourama Sidibe.
The three-point line extension to FIBA range didn’t personally influence Boeheim. “We guard where the shooter is,” he told Syracuse.com in June. “Not where the line is. It doesn’t change anything.”
A deeper line intuitively signals more space for a zone to cover, especially for centers. Results will reveal its impact, but the zone already priced in the era of three-point shooting with extended forwards. Man could be its own wrinkle.
Man-to-man could empower Jalen Carey, with his quick feet and hands, to thrive defending isolations. Any minutes John Bol Ajak and Jesse Edwards earn could be enhanced by allowing them to play man-to-man. Chukwu held down the complicated center role thanks to his massive height. The new bigs can afford to move around.
Syracuse will see more mobile fives as basketball continues to progress smaller and quicker. None of their options behind Sidibe are traditional, chiseled mountains like Arinze Onuaku, DaJuan Coleman or Fab Melo.
Boeheim is also juggling more wings these days. Oshae Brissett played the four last season, while Elijah Hughes patrolled backside help untraditional for a 6’6” player in the zone. He excelled there, so man allows Brycen Goodine, Joe Girard and Quincy Guerrier to join him in spacing lineups without moving Hughes around the zone. Boeheim can use any of the wings in those situations even if one specializes in backing up Hughes’s zone role.
Syracuse fizzled out of the NCAA Tournament because Baylor rained 16-for-34 (47%) three-point shooting on their heads. Frank Howard’s absence, as the vocal zone organizer, undermined the perimeter defense. SU didn’t have a man-to-man escape valve.
Pressing helped in late-game situations. It also left enough space behind it for poised teams to breakout and extend their lead further (i.e. Virginia’s 47-19 second half in March).
SU plays a lighter non-conference that’ll help integrate defensive ideologies into a cast that’ll be around for multiple seasons. Opponents like Seattle, North Florida and Niagara rescinded Syracuse’s recent mastery of non-conference strength of schedule, allowing for more experimentation than recent zone-reliant team could.
“The last three years we only had seven or eight scholarship players, so we were playing a lot of guys 37, 38 minutes,” Boeheim told The Athletic. “We couldn’t experiment even if we wanted to ... it’s not going to be our main defense, but we’re definitely going to try it.”