With the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team struggling to defend and to keep the ball out of the high-post through its first six games, Jim Boeheim sat at his home in Fayetteville and toiled away with a new idea.
The Orange 2-3 zone had been sliced up by Colgate through the high-post and diced by Auburn in the Battle 4 Atlantis with lob after lob. So, the head coach grappled with the thought of tinkering his storied zone. He sketched it on a napkin and tweaked the two top defenders of the 2-3. Or, rather than a 2-3, the alteration most closely resembled Lute Olson’s 1-1-3 zone.
Buddy Boeheim was getting ready to leave the house for the day when he saw his head coach etching away on the napkin. What was drawn was more science than art, but the same could be said of the Syracuse zone.
Buddy didn’t know what it was at the time, but as he walked out the door he knew his dad had something in mind.
“I could tell he was thinking of something.” Buddy says.
Jimmy Boeheim didn’t catch the sketch on the napkin, but it does sound like something his dad would do.
“I did not see that,” Jimmy says. “But I believe it.”
Later that day in practice as Syracuse prepared for Indiana, Jim Boeheim implemented the new defensive wrinkle. He paused practice and introduced the new idea to his team.
“Let’s try this,” Boeheim said. “I think it’ll work.”
Thus, the 1-1-3 was introduced.
The bottom of the zone is the same in the 1-1-3 as it is in the 2-3 scheme. Nothing changes for the forwards or the center.
“For us it doesn’t really change in the backline. It’s just mostly the guards,” Jesse Edwards says of his backline defensive unit.
Joe Girard positions himself in the center of the court just above the 3-point line and matches up as if it were a man-to-man. He tries to keep his man in front of him. Buddy Boeheim plants himself behind his roommate at the free throw line to take away the high-post. He traps the short-corner along the baseline. If the ball is skipped cross-court and then reversed, he stretches to the 3-point line until the defense can recover.
The defensive switch is an unprecedented move for the Syracuse head coach. Boeheim played man-to-man consistently throughout the 1990s and 2000s. He’ll go to the press when his team is trailing. But never before has he rolled out this defense.
Jimmy Boeheim thinks it’s a good tool to have in the defensive toolkit.
“I’ve never seen it,” Jimmy says.
“This is definitely new,” Buddy adds.
“Credit to him for thinking of it because we’ve been getting killed in the high-post,” Jimmy continued. “I think it’s really helped us a lot and it’s shown.”
Syracuse implemented the 1-1-3 against Indiana from the opening tip and it seemed to confuse everyone covering the game. Some thought it was a 1-3-1, or a 1-1-2-1. It confused Indiana to start as Syracuse jumped out to a 7-0 lead.
Syracuse had let the ball get into the high-post too easily against previous opponents, which partially led to Jesse Edwards getting into foul trouble. With All-American candidate Trayce Jackson-Davis operating in the high-post against the zone, Syracuse wanted to mitigate his touches. It forced Indiana to attempt a season-high 34 threes.
While the defense struggled to get out to shooters in that game to be sure, the new wrinkle forced Indiana to adjust to something new. That worked at times for the Hoosiers as Miller Kopp and Parker Stewart found open shots, but it also limited the ball from getting into the high-post and forced Indiana into 26 turnovers.
“(We’re) just throwing teams off I think,” Buddy says. “I can kind of roam around in the middle and take guys on the wing. Communicating is the biggest thing.”
On Saturday against Florida State, that same defense lulled the Seminoles into taking a season-high 30 attempts from outside. It made just four (13.3%). That played into Syracuse’s hand. There were some open shots, there were some contested shots, but either way three-point shooting is not Florida State’s strong suit. Syracuse did a better job locating personnel. Wyatt Wilkes, the one shooter that could’ve really burned them, shot 0-5.
“It’s been effective so far and obviously teams are going to adjust against it and there’s going to be some offensive (success). We need to go back to our normal zone but for now it’s been really good,” Buddy said.
Syracuse has vacillated between its traditional 2-3 zone and the 1-1-3, usually showing the latter defense at the start of halves and reverting back to 2-3 after the first or second media timeout.
“It’s a little hybrid going on right now!” Edwards said. “It’s working out so far and we’re going to keep adjusting throughout the season if we see some chances pop up.”
Syracuse players say it’s not totally wrong to call it a 1-3-1, but in reality it’s a 1-1-3.
“It’s still like our 2-3 but it’s a 1-1-3,” Girard said.
In a traditional 1-3-1 zone, the center usually takes the middle (the high-post) and the quickest player takes the bottom of the zone to stretch to and trap the corners. That isn’t the case in the 1-1-3.
“It’s a 1-1-3. We’ve got one guy trying to take away the high-post and another up top” Jimmy says. “It’s really just one guy up top and one guy in the high-post and three like normal.”
Another key to Syracuse’s win against Florida State was its ability to keep up on the glass against the tallest team in the country. Syracuse was outmatched athletically but still narrowly won the rebounding battle 41-40.
“I think we just brought the energy,” Edwards said after the game. “Everybody came in. That was the plan too. We don’t want to give them any easy offensive rebounds. And we wanted to catch a couple on the offensive end. We decided to put more pressure on that, some more emphasis.”
Edwards had a career-high 12 rebounds, including five on the offensive end, for a double-double. His backup Frank Anselem had four rebounds in just eight minutes. Cole Swider had a double-double as well with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
“I think every single game is going to be crucial for us to get on the glass, get rebounds,” Swider said. “That’s a big key for us to win. It’s hard to rebound out of the zone. Whenever we can win the rebounding battles it’s going to be good for us.”
“We mentally prepared,” Jimmy remarked. “You know this team is going to be physical. They usually do out-rebound us so it was definitely a big key. Frank, Cole and Jesse did a tremendous job on the boards so I’m really proud of that.”
Syracuse’s ability to rebound is always important out of the zone. Unless the team is forcing turnovers like it did against Indiana, the team can’t close a defensive stop until a rebound is secured. Florida State missed some wide open looks, but the Orange rebounded after creating some missed shots too.
“We made them take tough threes. It wasn’t just that they were missing. I think a big reason for that was we were there on a lot of threes,” Jimmy said.
“People can say they got open shots but a lot of the threes they missed were because we were contesting tonight.” Girard said.
“They stuck to what they wanted to do and they kept on shooting them,” Swider continued. “They thought they had some good looks. Maybe some days they’ll make those shots but thankfully they didn’t make them today.”
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