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Jim Boeheim on Syracuse’s 2-3 zone: ‘We don’t have another defense’

Syracuse’s flagship 2-3 zone defense continues to get torched. What’s happened?

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team suffered a 99-82 defeat at Pittsburgh on Saturday, marking the first time in the Jim Boeheim era where Syracuse has lost by 17 or more in three straight games. The last time Syracuse lost three consecutive games by that margin or more was in the 1961-62 season when Marc Guley was head coach.

As part of a larger trend in those aforementioned defeats, the storied Syracuse 2-3 zone defense continues to progressively devolve — particularly when it comes to defending the long-ball. Syracuse surrendered 16 made threes to the Panthers and has now given up 44 made triples in the last three games.

Barring a miracle run in the ACC Tournament, Syracuse will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in back-to-back seasons since 2007 and 2008. Last year Syracuse finished under .500 for the first time in over 50 years and missed the post-season altogether. Syracuse’s offense has been fair to good over the last five years, but the hang up is on the defensive end. Boeheim was asked about this after the Pittsburgh game, to which he answered metaphorically.

“You have a house painter and you say, ‘Now I want you to paint like Picasso.’ That would be good if he could do that,” Boeheim stated. “But he can’t.”

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse currently has a defensive efficiency of 106.3 — otherwise allowing 106.3 total points per every 100 possessions (not good) — which marks as the worst for the Orange in the KenPom era. In other words, Syracuse has really struggled to compete on the defensive end of the floor.

In three of the last four seasons the defense has ranked outside of the top 100 teams in college basketball, which elicits the question of whether a 2-3 zone is still an effective defense in modern basketball with so many skilled shooters or if Syracuse just doesn’t have the talent to play the defense effectively.

Let’s take a look at the data. Here’s the three point trend across the entire sport of college basketball over the last decade. The green line represents three point shooting percentage while the orange line represents three point field goals taken as a percentage of total shots:

Click to enlarge

Three point shooting percentage has remained somewhat flat within the 33%-35% band. What’s inarguable is that teams are taking more threes than ever, going from taking about a third of total shots from beyond the arc a decade ago to now over 37% even as the three point line was moved further back starting in 2019-20.

Here’s what’s happened at Syracuse in that same timeframe:

A very basic line graph

A simple line graph, but you get the idea. Syracuse’s defensive efficiency has progressively worsened across the last decade. The higher the number, the more points Syracuse has given up.

Let’s take a look at Syracuse’s three point defense. The orange line represents opponents’ shooting percentage from beyond the arc while the blue line represents opponents’ total threes taken as a percentage of total shots:

Over the last decade, teams have taken more threes against Syracuse. While teams in college basketball are taking 3-4% more of its total shots from beyond the three point line overall, teams are taking 7-8% more against Syracuse over that same timeframe.

The data points vary, but the trendline shows teams have also made threes at a higher clip against Syracuse, going from the low 30s in the early 2010s to mid-30s.

Through this decade of basketball, Syracuse has played zone almost exclusively with most notable exceptions in full-court pressure. To a lesser extent, Syracuse has played a 1-1-3 zone sparingly and even man-to-man for the first few games of the non-conference schedule earlier this season.

It’s fair to wonder if the defensive scheme is still effective in this era of basketball or if Syracuse has struggled to adapt in bringing in the talent necessary to defend at a high level. The answer is probably both, but it’s hard to discern which weight is heavier. Either way, the numbers tell the story in that Syracuse has not been good defensively.

For better or worse, Syracuse is sticking with the zone.

“We play our defense. This is our defense. That’s it. We don’t have another defense. We tried [man], we tried all summer. We tried in the fall. Our man is just not good,” Boeheim said.