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Syracuse 2-3 zone defense struggled in first half against Drexel, adjusted in second

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Syracuse needed to alter its 2-3 zone to get past a vexing Drexel team.

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

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team struggled to close out to Drexel’s shooters in the first half of Sunday night’s contest before coming back to win 75-60 in the second half. The Dragons, coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2021, were one of the better shooting teams in the country last year. Drexel shot 37.1% from distance last season, or 40th in the country in that percentage.

So it’s of little surprise that Drexel would look for outside shots against a taller Syracuse team. The Dragons worked the ball into the high-post to exploit the crevices of the 2-3 zone. They forced the Syracuse centers to commit while pinching the forwards and making the guards rotate down from the top of the key.

“We were playing a little tentative,” Cole Swider said. “It was the first time we had to deal with a team that was really focused on getting it to the high-post.”

As a result, open shots were found from the perimeter and Drexel made Syracuse pay to the tune of 7-17 from the three point line in the first 20 minutes. They went into the half owning a 33-32 edge.

“They’re a good team so credit to them, but we can’t have those starts. We can’t have those first halves. Just mental lapses on defenses and (the) offense wasn’t really flowing great. It just can’t take it that long to get into it,” Jimmy Boeheim said.

Syracuse didn’t adjust as quickly as Jim Boeheim wanted. The Orange tried to implement changes in the first half but failed to make the adjustment until the second. They needed halftime to talk it over.

“He came in with a little bit of fire early on,” Jimmy Boeheim said of his head coach’s halftime speech. “Then the coaches talked and came back and he was calm. He kind of told us, he gave us a little bit both which we needed. At the end (he) just delivered the message really calm.”

“He put a message across that really got us going and got us fired up to play in the second half,” Swider added. “It was all about just playing a little bit harder, a little bit more together.”

Frank Anselem said Boeheim’s instruction at the half was to wake up to what Drexel was doing. He said Syracuse failed to make the right defensive reads in the first half.

“I mean Drexel’s a good team. They move the ball well, they have good shooters. They were a tournament team last year and we can’t really take that for granted. I think in the first half we started kind of slow,” Anselem said.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 14 Drexel at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Something needed to change on the defensive end, so what was altered specifically?

“When the ball went into the high-post we found the shooters,” Jim Boeheim said of the second half strategy. “They were using the high-post to pass to the shooters. The first half we allowed that and the second half we were there and for the most part didn’t let them get the shots they were looking (for).”

Part of Syracuse’s defensive fine-tuning came from the center position. In the first half, Edwards and Anselem aggressively closed out when the ball entered the high-post. In the second half, the centers remained anchored in the paint when the ball entered the free throw line area.

“The middle guy, high-post, they weren’t really looking for the low-post. They didn’t really throw it in there a lot. For me, that just meant not going all out pressure on the high-post guy because he wasn’t looking to score,” Jesse Edwards said.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 14 Drexel at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Having the center sit in the paint when the ball entered the high post gave the guards and forwards the ability to stay home on shooters instead of collapsing. Essentially they were daring Drexel to have their high-post player beat them.

“He wasn’t looking to score out of the high-post,” Edwards continued. “He was catching it and passing to the corners. So every time he caught it, we were supposed to play that and if you stay back and the guards stay back then it’s harder to make that play.”

The defensive recalibration allowed Syracuse to settle in. The offense picked up immediately out of the half as Syracuse used a 16-6 run to regain the lead and never look back.

“In the second half, coach lit a fire under our butts,” Anselem continued. “He kind of showed us what they were doing. So in the second half I think the run we went on in the first five minutes, that was good for our confidence. The defense settled in and that got us the game.”

Drexel shot 3-10 from distance in the second half and although Syracuse was out-rebounded 30-26, the difference was made with 20 forced turnovers on 15 steals.

“I’m proud of the way we came back in the second half. We played with a lot of energy, we played together,” Jimmy Boeheim said.

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