There is no college basketball coach more closely identified with a particular defensive scheme than Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and his "patented" 2-3 zone. For years the Orangemen have played zone defense virtually (though not entirely) to the exclusion of any other scheme. Meanwhile most other teams either mix zone with man-to-man or, more commonly, play man defense about as often as Boeheim plays zone. As the team that's been playing so much zone defense for so long, Syracuse stands alone.
Now, I can already hear the coaches in the audience grumbling so let me make one point at the top. Teams don't just alternate between playing man and zone, they often blend elements of the two defenses on a regular basis. Boeheim, or just about any coach employing a zone, will talk at length about how important it is to pressure the ball with man-to-man intensity. Meanwhile even the most ardent man-to-man devotee will point out that away from the ball, on the weak side of the court, defenders are commonly tasked with covering areas, tracking their man, and watching the ball, rather than simply following their assigned player wherever he goes. Zone and man aren't polar opposites. More like differing areas of emphasis.
To test how successful Syracuse's emphasis on zone defense has been, I'll be calling upon the per-possession data that I've been tracking now for the past few years. Does the zone work? Does playing a zone really force opponents to shoot more threes than they otherwise would? And is it true that playing a zone hurts a team's performance on the defensive glass? Thanks to Boeheim's unwavering commitment to the 2-3 zone (and five years' worth of data), we can offer some educated guesses on all of the above. Let's go to the numbers.
1. Syracuse has indeed played very good defense the past five years.
Defense tends to correlate fairly well with height, and with the frontcourt players that Boeheim's brought to upstate New York (Darryl Watkins, Donte Greene, Wes Johnson, Arinze Onuaku, Rick Jackson, et al.) I have no doubt that the Orangemen would have been good on D the last few years even if they'd been playing man-to-man. But as it happens Syracuse is somewhat well known for their zone -- and they've executed that scheme very well. Boeheim's team has played 6,138 possessions of basketball in Big East regular season games the last five years, and over that span (get ready for a coincidence) the Orangemen have allowed opponents to score 6,139 points. Never mind reaching for your calculator, let's just call that an average of one point allowed per possession. That is very good defense. The average Big East team over that same period allowed 1.04 points per trip. Just two teams in the league, Louisville (0.97) and Connecticut (0.99), can beat that number over the past five seasons.
2. The Orangemen's opponents do shoot a lot of threes, and that's been good news for Syracuse.
There's no law that says forcing your opponent to shoot an unusually high number of threes will automatically help your team. In fact for years Duke has predicated their own very good defense on the exact opposite approach. The Blue Devils want their opponents to step inside the three-point line and shoot long two-point jump shots.
Nevertheless, it is true that teams playing against Syracuse tend to do exactly what announcers say they should not do. Those opponents "shoot over" the zone and attempt a lot of three-point shots. Over the past five years Big East opponents have launched 39 percent of their shots from beyond the three-point line against the Orangemen. In a league that as a whole shoots threes less than 33 percent of the time, that is a very high number. (Only Villanova has forced conference opponents to attempt more threes over that time.)
Of course what's made the Syracuse defense effective is not that opponents shoot so many threes but rather that they miss so many threes. Big East teams facing Syracuse the last five years have made just 32 percent of their three-pointers.
3. Playing zone hurts Syracuse's defensive rebounding far more than it hurts Syracuse's defense.
If you're looking for the weak link in the Orangemen's defense, it's on the glass. In the time I've been tracking possessions, Syracuse has pulled down just 65 percent of the available defensive rebounds in regular season play, a number that puts Boeheim's team a hair below the Big East average. At first glance this would seem to confirm the stereotypical view of the 2-3, which says that defenders playing zone have a harder time boxing out under the boards.
I'm not here to say this stereotypical view doesn't hold at least a grain of truth. I am here to say, however, that you can play very good and maybe even great defense without great defensive rebounding. Look at Syracuse. Or, better still, look at Connecticut. Or Louisville, or Georgetown. All of the above have posted defensive rebound percentages right around 65 in Big East play the past five years and yet all of the above have also played very good defense. Meanwhile teams like St. John's and Cincinnati have been far superior on the defensive glass, yet inferior where it really counts: allowing points. In the Big East only Pitt has managed to combine excellent defensive rebounding with excellent defense.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Syracuse's defensive rebounding hasn't been bad, it's just been average. And the Orangemen have made up for average performance in this one area with superb field-goal defense and a notable lack of fouling (the latter comprising still another zone cliche that's been proven to have some substance).
By encouraging opponents to do something (shoot threes) that history says is statistically unlikely to work against this particular defense, Syracuse has achieved a significant and durable advantage in Big East competition. Defense is just half the equation, of course, and even for the Orangemen there are nights when it seems like the other team can't miss from outside. But give credit where it's due. Boeheim's 2-3 zone has been frustrating opponents for years, and studying the numbers more closely merely confirms what our eyes have long seen. The Orangemen's defensive prowess is no myth.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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