HOUSTON — Jim Boeheim is known in the basketball world as one of the gurus of the 2-3 zone.
The 71-year-old Syracuse head coach has almost strictly used the 2-3 as the Orange’s base defense and he estimated on Friday that he’s coached over 200 clinics on his defensive principles over the years.
“You know, it’s pretty much standard. Like this is Jim Boeheim, this is all he knows, so we’re going to have him talk about the 2-3 zone,” Boeheim said of the clinics. “I tried one clinic to start with something else. There were 400 coaches there. They started getting restless. I knew right away, okay, we’ll talk about it.”
Coaches at all levels of basketball know about Boeheim’s nearly exclusive reliance on the 2-3 zone. So when the Orange threw a full-court press at Gonzaga and Virginia in the second half of comeback wins last weekend in Chicago, people noticed. As Syracuse prepares to face North Carolina for the third time this season in the second national semifinal on Saturday, the Tar Heels are working on a press break in case the Orange start defending the length of the floor.
“I feel like most of us have never seen Syracuse play any type of defense other than that 2-3 zone,” North Carolina point guard Nate Britt said. “So it was a bit of a surprise. But obviously it worked. We did prepare for that and we expect them to go to that if they need to.”
North Carolina took some time to go over its press break during practice this week as the Tar Heels would occasionally throw six players on the floor to mimic Syracuse’s length and aggressiveness in trap situations. The Orange have yet to use the full-court press on North Carolina in the two meetings the teams had during ACC play, but the Tar Heels saw the damage that the press did against a familiar foe in Virginia and they payed attention.
“They were falling into that methodical Virginia style early in that game,” Tar Heel guard Marcus Paige said of Syracuse’s recent press. “If you don’t do anything about [Virginia’s slow pace], it can be the death of you in basketball terms. For them to speed them up like that, a team that never really gets sped up, is pretty impressive. They’re very aggressive at it.”
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But will Boeheim even try to use the full-court press against North Carolina?
Gonzaga had guards that could be unreliable and Virginia had trouble speeding up its slow pace, but playing fast fits right into the hands of what the Tar Heels want to do offensively. With multiple ball handlers like Paige, Britt, Joel Berry, and even guys like Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, Boeheim downplayed the press returning against North Carolina on Saturday.
“We used to press all the time. We had better personnel for it. Our personnel is not suited for it right now,” Boeheim said. “It was good for four minutes against Virginia and two minutes against Gonzaga. I wouldn’t trust it too much longer than that. I didn’t.
“We took it off when we took the lead with five minutes to go in the Virginia game because I didn’t think it was that good, even though we got a couple steals. Virginia shot themselves in the foot. They missed a layup. They walked. They made a bad turnover. They did the right things, they were in the right position, but they didn’t execute.”
Whether you want to call it good defense or bad offense, Virginia’s lack of execution in its press break undoubtedly gave the Orange enough of a boost to take the game over in the second half. But North Carolina’s guards feel like they can execute if Syracuse goes to the press.
“We feel confident that any team that presses us is giving us an advantage,” Paige said. “We like to play in the open court and play uptempo. We have our regular press break planned for it if they try to press us and trap us. Until someone stops us from doing that, we’re ready.”
North Carolina might feel confident breaking a press, but they have lost this season to a team that isn’t shy about defending the length of the floor in Louisville. When you consider that Syracuse trots out a bigger and longer defense than the Cardinals in the backcourt, that could be an interesting wrinkle if the Orange fall behind on Saturday.
“It’s been causing a whole lot of problems so apparently they’re doing something well,” Pinson said. “They do a really good job, if you get past them, of coming back and causing deflections and tipped balls and [Syracuse big man Tyler] Lydon is doing a really good job at the rim.”
Boeheim isn’t saying a lot of positive things about the Syracuse full-court press heading into Saturday’s Final Four game, but it was certainly a game-changer in the Orange’s last two wins. Whether we see it on Saturday will probably be dictated by how close the game is and if North Carolina is able to hit shots from the outside.
If the Orange is packing in the 2-3 and forcing Tar Heel misses from the perimeter, they might not even need the press. But if Syracuse finds themselves down in the second half, it’s been an effective weapon for them over the last week.