Defense is emphasized in every gym that has two hoops and a ball. It’s so important that people refer to it as the reason championship teams are created (“defense wins championships”). But defense means more than anything for the Syracuse Orange as their 2-3 zone must be executed to perfection for their team philosophy to work.
Last year we saw a team that wasn’t built to orchestrate coach Jim Boeheim’s zone to his liking. Whether they were freshmen or transfers, the Orange had too many first-timers to execute coach Boeheim’s historic defense.
This year will hopefully be different, with the “rookies” from last year now having a full season of playing in the zone under their belt. But experience won’t get the job done by itself in coach Boeheim’s defense as the ability to be a quality defender will be needed to reach the team’s expectations.
So, what kind of assets does coach Boeheim have to work with come next winter?
Let’s start with a look at the returning impact guards for the Orange. The point of attack for Syracuse’s defense starts with the two guards at the top of the zone. Frank Howard and Tyus Battle both have at least one year of experience playing the 2-3 zone in the Carrier Dome, and a lot was learned in that time.
Howard, the rising Junior, doesn’t get enough credit for his defensive instincts as he had six games with at least three steals last year. He isn’t the lockdown defender a coach looks for, but his experience and quick hands will help disrupt the start of the offense for Syracuse’s opponents.
Tyus Battle is going to be one of the keys to next year’s zone working the way coach Boeheim would like it to. Battle averaged just over one steal a game last year while putting up eight games with at least three. Those numbers will be expected to increase as the rising sophomore showcased his athletic abilities that can develop into an elite defender.
Next lets dive into the new guards that will be joining Howard and Battle at the top of the zone. First there is the incoming freshmen in Howard Washington. Washington may struggle in the zone to start off due to his frame; while he is 6’3”, the point guard is only 175 pounds, a size that could get pushed around at the top of the zone.
Geno Thorpe is the other new-comer that coach Boeehim will have to work with. He has a similar body type to Washington as he stands at 6’4” and 170 pounds; while his lack of body mass may hurt him at times, his length on defense has helped him in the past in his career. Thorpe will fit in nicely at the top of the zone if he’s able to use his length to turn easy passes into turnovers.
The other most crucial part to an efficient 2-3 zone are the players at the bottom who defend the corners and the paint. The players that will man that area of the zone include Taurean Thompson, Paschal Chukwu, Matthew Moyer (Moyer redshirted last season), O’shae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj, and Bourama Sidibe.
Thompson proved that he can be lethal on offense last season, but he also showed that he needs a lot of help learning the ins-and-outs to the defensive side of the ball. Thompson needs to improve his ability to see all areas of the floor on defense as he was beaten back door on countless occasions last year.
Chukwu is going to be a deciding factor regarding the success of next year’s defense due to him not having much experience because of injuries/transfer rules. Chukwu’s sheer size alone should help him contest shots (he’s a convincing 7’2”), but learning the tactics to team defense will be a challenge for the big man next winter.
Moyer will be an interesting fit as he brings versatility to the zone. He is a big body, as he stands 6’8” and 220 pounds which will allow him to prevent players from getting to their go to spots on the floor. While he has had a full year of practice, Moyer hasn’t seen a real collegiate game yet so translating what he’s learned in practice to the real-life game could be a challenge at the start of the season.
Brissett, Dolezaj, and Sidibe are incoming freshmen who will be asked to learn team defense quickly. They’ll likely struggle at certain points in the season due to it being a whole new style/competitive level of basketball, but all three players bring assets that can help coach Boeheim get the stop he needs down the stretch.
Brissett is an athlete who brings length and aggressiveness to the defensive side of the floor. Once he learns the small details to the 2-3 zone Brissett will be able to make a nightly impact on the end that matters most. Dolezaj isn’t known for his defensive capabilities, but his length at 6’9” could cause problems for smaller players inside.
Sidibe is the final piece to the puzzle as he’ll be asked to man the middle of the zone at times. His big frame will help him disrupt easy shots at the rim, but his lack of experience could hurt him to avoid foul trouble.
The Orange have weapons on offense, but relying on outscoring their opponent in high scoring games won’t get the job done every night. They have the pieces to orchestrate a successful defense—it’s just up to coach Boeheim to plug in the right answers at the right time.