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Syracuse men’s basketball: 2-3 zone defense returns in Louisville win

Some things change, but others definitely stay the same

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 07 Louisville at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Syracuse Orange fans were greeted with a familiar sight during the 94-92 Orange win over the Louisville Cardinals on Wednesday. Adrian Autry ditched the man-to-man defense that he had been grooming and teaching in his first year as Syracuse’s head coach. Instead, he played the majority of the game in the familiar 2-3 zone defense that grew to define the latter part of Jim Boeheim’s Hall of Fame career with the Orange.

The legendary zone defense has rarely featured this season. The Orange usually only turn to it when the opponent has an inbounds play in their halfcourt. Wednesday’s game was the first this season where the primary defense of choice was zone. The biggest reason was to play into the matchup that Louisville gave Syracuse.

“The way [Louisville] scores, they put pressure on the paint,” said Autry postgame. “You could see in the beginning of the game. Their game plan was to go inside.”

The switch to counter Louisville’s size and athleticism inside, especially with Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, seemed to be a good strategic decision as the ball slowly got forced to the perimeter. One of the trademarks of the Boeheim zone that carried over was that the defense allowed the opponent to shoot threes. Louisville is one of the worst shooting teams in the conference from distance, with only Notre Dame having a lower three-point field goal percentage than the Cardinals.

“They hadn’t shot the ball well, to be honest with you,” said Autry. “Up until today.”

Luckily for Louisville, Kenny Payne’s squad kicked its shooting woes to the curb. The Cardinals went 11-25 from deep against the Orange, good for a 44% clip. But you could see where Autry was coming from in his decision making. Three-point shooting had been a weakness for Louisville this season. Syracuse needed a way to combat the size disadvantage inside, especially with Maliq Brown being the only Orange player who naturally played at power forward or center most of the time on the floor.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 07 Louisville at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

However, if the final score didn’t give it away, the zone didn’t necessary stop Louisville from scoring. The Cardinals still dominated inside with 40 points in the paint to 34 Orange paint points. Louisville also outrebounded the Orange 40-21. What allowed Syracuse to keep up and eventually defeat Louisville was the 23 points off 17 Cardinals turnovers and the 33 Orange fast-break points.

Autry did also deny during the postgame that the switch to zone was not because of a shorter bench rotation due to the dismissal of Benny Williams. But while it was nice to see the zone back, it became evident there was a good reason why the Orange don’t revert back to the defensive set that often this year.

“It was the first time that we played this much zone all year,” said Autry. “The zone wasn’t up to par. We have to get better at that.”

Perhaps if Autry feels like he can live with the traditional rebounding and three-point deficits that the Orange zone traditional gives up, he’ll dedicate more practice time to the zone. But for now, it seems like the old Orange defense is a matchup and situation specific set that won’t be utilized as much.

And with a Clemson team coming up on the schedule with a certain former Syracuse deep-ball specialist on the roster, it’d be fair to expect more man-to-man in the next Orange game.