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Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense continues two-year slide

Syracuse’s 2-3 zone has historically been amongst the best defenses in all of college basketball. In the last two seasons the zone hasn’t been up to par.

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team has struggled to defend out of the 2-3 zone this season. The Orange are slightly better than a year ago, but with largely the same personnel and no Bourama Sidibe, Syracuse is struggling to stop opponents from scoring.

The Orange currently rank No. 78 in the country in KenPom defensive efficiency, allowing 96.3 points per 100 possessions. That number is marginally improved from Syracuse’s No. 116 ranking in the same category last season (99.6 points per 100 possession), but considerably low by historical Syracuse standards. The Orange were in the top 50 in defensive efficiency in every year from 2002 sans two (2006, 2008) leading up to the 2016-17 season. The 2016-17 season was the worst defense for Syracuse in the KenPom era, meaning the Orange have trotted out three of its worst defensive teams in the last five years.

After a road loss at Pittsburgh in January, Jim Boeheim called his defense the worst he’s seen in his time at SU after his team gave up 64 points in the second half to the Panthers. The Orange lost that game by 20.

Syracuse gave up 81 points to Virginia last Monday, although the Cavaliers boast a top-15 offense. That said, Syracuse’s defensive issues lingered against NC State on Sunday, particularly in the first half. NC State scored 47 points in the first 20 minutes.

“The first half we just didn’t play defense. We gave them wide open looks from the three point line. It was probably as bad a defense as we could play,” Jim Boeheim said.

The Orange made adjustments at the half and tightened up the 2-3 zone. Syracuse wanted to take away the high-post as Jericole Hellems and Manny Bates were taking advantage of the zone for open dunks in the first. The duo combined for 42 points on 16-28 shooting.

“Any defense you play is only as good as the players in it,” Boeheim continued. “We played the same defense both halves. We’ve changed it slightly for this game to try to get back on the high-post better, leave the corner a little bit more open, more exposed.”

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The zone has often looked a step slow this season. The guards haven’t always done a good job keeping the ball out of the high-post. Yet Boeheim asks for more help out of the forward position, especially with an undermanned Dolezaj at center with no Sidibe. Rebounding has been a part of the defensive equation as the Orange rank tenth in the ACC in rebounding margin at -1.2. When getting out-rebounded, Syracuse is 1-5.

Boeheim said post-game that Dolezaj is fighting a war inside by himself so he pinched his forwards in the second half instead of extending them beyond the three point arc.

Said Buddy Boeheim: “The high-post was killing us. Hellems was tough in there. He made a couple turnarounds, strong attacker. He’s really tough in there. We had to make adjustments and have the forward help that a little more. Me and Kadary or Joe had to get out on the shooters more, chase and keep them off the line. Instead of having the forwards high we kept them both in so we could limit him and Bates inside.”

The defense was much better in the final 20 minutes as NC State scored only 26 points. Kadary Richmond earned extended time and the Orange took away the high-post by bringing the center up and pinching the forwards.

Still, Syracuse has plenty of work to do. NC State was without its two leading scorers and put up 73 points.

“Our defense just has to get better. That’s the bottom line. If our defense doesn’t get better we won’t win. That’s it. It’s pretty simple,” Boeheim finished.

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