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Dear Media, The Riddle Of Syracuse's 2-3 Zone Defense Is Easy To Solve

Syracuse's recent run to the 2013 Final Four has sparked the media's interest in the 2-3 zone defense, mastered by one, Jim Boeheim. Everyone wants to figure out how to solve its riddle. Here's the answer.


If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then history tells us Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone defense is as appealing as an unattractive suitor before a few too many drinks.

In over 37 years of coaching, with a majority of that time featuring some version of a 2-3 zone defense, nobody -- unless you count Y league teams as Grantland's Charles P. Piece pointed out Monday -- has tried to mimic the defensive coaching strategies of James Arthur Boeheim: a National Champion, five-time Final Four participant and winner of 920 games.

Yet, only after his program wins a few important games and is thrown into the spotlight, national reporters go gaga over it; like it dropped 30 pounds, developed a six-pack and started dressing the way Bradley Cooper did in The Hangover.

They all ask questions about it and wonder: why is nobody else doing this thing (which could help you land a lady like Juli Boeheim)?

When asked Friday afternoon that very question -- after defeating the No. 1-seeded Indiana Hoosiers, who's offense was one of the best in the nation but shockingly could do nothing against Syracuse -- Boeheim simply answered:

"Because you have to commit to it and most coaches play man-to-man, so that is what they commit to."

"If a young coach was at a school, whatever school, playing a zone that was success then it could work," Boeheim said, "but I don't see any of those guys out there right now."

Right after Syracuse's upset victory over the Hoosiers, who presumably had all the tools and favorable match-ups to shred the zone, Boeheim pointed out that the biggest key to SU's crazy defense was the belief in it.

"No. 1, it is like anything you do -- I learned this along time ago -- you have to believe in what you do," Boeheim said before his team held Marquette to a NCAA record 39 points in an Elite Eight victory. "You have to believe what you're doing is right and good."

Of course, the belief in the zone didn't happen right away. Boeheim admitted that the Orange hadn't transitioned to the 2-3 zone full-time until 2009 when LeMoyne defeated a soon-to-be No. 1-ranked Syracuse squad in the preseason.

From there, the 68-year-old coach said he swore off man-to-man completely and decided time was better spent perfecting the 2-3 zone defense and adding "wrinkles" to it.

Now, Syracuse fans aren't stupid and have really good memories.

Boeheim may claim this zone concept has evolved in the last few years, but nearly everyone can remember television analysts breaking down the Orange's 2-3 zone defense all the way back to 1996, when the program made its second Final Four run under Boeheim. In highlight clips, the Orangemen can be seen playing it even late into the heartbreaking National Championship Game loss to Kentucky.

If you're a Syracuse basketball fan, odds are you have always associated the 2-3 zone with your team. You get annoyed every time a sports broadcaster (especially this guy) breaks down tape on how to beat it. You get defensive when pundits make fun of it (2:50 mark). You hate it when teams use it against the Orange, like many Big East Conference teams have in the past few years.

(Before I move on, I'd like to address the pundits who can't stand that Boeheim wastes his "top athletes" in a 2-3 zone defense.

Please, understand that a lot of the time Boeheim and company are able to recruit these so-called athletes because nobody else wants them. Boeheim said it himself last week, he looks for athletic, skinny and lanky players that man-to-man programs, which bypass these players because they fear bigger and bulkier players will bully them around, ignore or don't recruit as hard.

The list of these types of players that have gone "under-the-radar" and flourished at Syracuse is lengthy. What benefits the zone doesn't always benefit other teams.

If you don't understand that, then, as Boeheim says, you are an idiot.)

But if you're like yours truly, what aggravates you the most is when it becomes the SINGLE reason the Orange have made an improbable run to the Final Four.

In no way is this piece downplaying what Syracuse has been able to do defensively. Holding NCAA opponents to an average of 45.8 points on 28.9-percent shooting, including just 3.5 3-pointers, and forcing 16.8 turnovers per game is championship caliber.

But as Boeheim pointed out a few games back, and all Syracuse followers know is true, SU has been playing a zone like this for a few years now. The 2009-10 team had a fantastic zone. (I'd argue a better one.) So did last year's squad. (Of course, that was before Fab Melo decided to stop going to class or whatever he was doing.)

This year's zone has been fantastic over the last three weeks, but because 1) the overall team focus, hustle and decision making is 100-times better than it was then; 2) the Orange have a better half-court offense -- they're moving, passing and making an extra effort to rebound; and 3) nobody in college basketball is actually good at shooting -- just a good, not great, zone defense can exploit this.

It is lazy to single out the 2-3 zone for this fantastic run. If this defense was something new and so effective, then the college basketball world and its coaches would begin adapting it, much like the NFL has adapted the pistol offense.

We all know this will not happen. Boeheim will be Boeheim, and Syracuse will still be the only program in the nation that runs a 2-3 zone defense 100-percent of the time.

Yet, for the next four and a half days college basketball fans will hear all about Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense and how teams just need to do this, that and this to solve its riddle.

Well, here's the secret to beating the zone and the Orange: play harder, play smarter and make more shots.

Over the past three weeks, only one team has done that. That team, Louisville, is also headed to Atlanta and the 2013 Final Four.