Heading into Duke’s Sweet 16 matchup against Syracuse this weekend, expect to hear the term “zone defense” somewhere around 1 to 100 times. Perhaps one of the few common trends between the Orange and Blue Devils is their reliance on a defensive scheme that has made college basketball unwatchable at times.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone has defined him during his coaching career—allowing the 73-year old to maximize talent during his 42 years as the head coach of the Orange. On the other hand, head coach Mike Krzyzewski relied on a man-to-man scheme for almost the entirety of his career, before implementing zone at times in 2015 and fully committing to the defense this season.
But what makes a zone defense so hard to beat and even harder to watch at times?
The zone challenges opposing offenses to move the ball effectively and knock down open perimeter shots. Even the best college offenses struggle to make enough extra passes to get clean looks.
So far in the tournament, Syracuse has held its three opponents—Arizona State, sixth-seeded TCU and third-seeded Michigan State—to just 25.6 percent shooting from deep. This is even more impressive considering the Orange faced two teams that ranked in the top 25 nationally in 3-point shooting in the regular season. At the same time, the Blue Devils held their first-weekend opponents to just 27.9 percent from downtown.
The Orange begin possessions with a pair of guards at the top of the key, flanked by two wings in the corners and a big man down low.
For Syracuse, it helps that guards Tyus Battle and Frank Howard have long wingspans and move well enough laterally to cover the primary ball-handler. The presence of 7-foot-2 center Paschal Chukwu down low serves as enough of a deterrent for any guard to second-guess driving to the basket.
The most effective way to attack the zone is to get the ball to the high post—the area near the foul line with the ACC logo in the picture below. But as Wendell Carter Jr. reaches this spot, notice how the Orange defense converges on Grayson Allen and closes the potential passing lane to the freshman, forcing a kicked ball violation.
Without getting the ball into the high post, teams are often forced to settle for long, contested jumpers or force drives to the basket that result in turnovers. The result is ugly, low-scoring games that deprive many of the beauty of basketball. The Orange have yet to score more than 60 points in a game in this tournament. They are also 3-0.
Boeheim’s scheme was at its finest in Sunday’s win against Michigan State. Watch how Syracuse effectively reacts to the Spartans’ offensive set even after the ball enters the low-post area. There’s no secret that playing the 2-3 zone requires good communication, and the ability of the Orange defenders to pick up switches and continue moving as a unit is a testament to their perfection of the defense.
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But all things considered, Syracuse went 8-10 in ACC play and finished the season just 23-13. This was a team that shouldn’t have made the NCAA tournament.
The Blue Devils' 60-44 win against the Orange earlier this season—one of the ugliest games of basketball that’s ever been played in Cameron—offers a few examples of how Duke may look to attack Syracuse Friday.
On this possession, the Blue Devils start the play by bringing both Marvin Bagley III and Carter to the top of the key for a ball screen on one of the Orange guards.
As Bagley is setting a screen, Carter is able to slowly slip to the middle of the high post area and make himself available to an entry pass from Allen. This time, Allen only has one defender in front of him and can throw a pass over the top of Syracuse’s smaller guard to the 6-foot-10 Carter.
But look at what develops behind Carter as Bagley returns to the paint. The Blue Devils essentially have two of their bigs close to the basket with only one Orange defender to account for them.
Once Allen feeds the ball to Carter, the big man sees a defender in front of him. But Bagley is now wide open in the middle of the paint.
The next step is not much of a surprise, as Carter throws a nice bounce pass to Bagley, who finishes with two of his easiest points of the season. With just a simple screen at the start of the play to move one of the Syracuse guards away from the ball-handler, the Blue Devils created much more space on the floor.
Unlike many of the teams Syracuse has faced this season, Duke has two big men that know how to play off each other and are comfortable playing high-low basketball. Carter, in particular, has exemplified a basketball IQ beyond his years, and his ability to hit midrange jumpers makes him even more difficult to guard in a zone defense.
Despite having two NBA-caliber big men of its own, Michigan State faltered against this same zone defense because of its over-reliance on the 3-pointer. For the Blue Devils to avoid becoming another of Boeheim’s March victims, they must rely on the tandem of Bagley and Carter to facilitate their offense.