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Thoughts: Michigan vs. The Syracuse Zone

  • One of the things that has been getting a ton of coverage in the last few days has been the way Michigan will matchup against Syracuse's zone defense. The Orange are known for their defensive intensity, but the Wolverines are known for lighting up defenses with their Player of the Year candidate and outstanding shooters. This is the kind of matchup that makes basketball fans' mouths water and leads to some of the most intense gametime minutes of the season.

    First, let's get some basics. The Orange are rated as the #5 defense according to KenPom, #17 in defensive points per game, #2 in opponent shooting percentage, #4 in opponent effective shooting percentage, #3 in opponent 3 point shooting percentage, #8 in steals per game, and #7 in steals per possession. Essentially, this means Syracuse has a pretty good defense. They keep opponents from scoring, shooting the ball effectively, and force them into committing turnovers. It's a recipe for success and why they have gone so deep into the tournament.

    But what's so special about Syracuse's zone defense? Teams all over the country use the zone and they can't produce defensive numbers like the Orange. The simple answer is effectiveness. Coach Jim Boeheim keeps it simple for the players and allows them to learn how to use their scheme effectively. Imagine that one person at the arcade has mastered Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat. Sure, there are a few people out there who know how to beat his moves, but for most people, they are going to lose because they can't exploit Sub-Zero's weaknesses. Syracuse's defense operates in much the same way as the video game. There are going to be a few teams with the personnel and the hot shooting to beat Syracuse's zone, but it's not going to happen that often. And for anybody else that happens to run into them, it's the end of the line.

    Typically, there are three ways to combat a 2-3 zone. The first way is to speed up the game. This allows you to beat your opponent in transition before they have a chance to get set in their zone defense. The second way is to go to the middle of the defense where there should be a gap. This gap usually occurs around the free throw line. The last way to combat a zone (according to the general logic) is to shoot well from outside. A zone defense makes it difficult to get inside, but should leave at least a player or two relatively open outside the arch.

    The problem for opponents of Syracuse is that the Orange have learned these flaws and have created ways to combat them. Their athleticism and length overcomes many of these issues. An opponent may try to get into transition, but they have the athletes to run down the court with them. An opponent may also try to go to the middle gap, but Syracuse's length prevents an opponent player in the middle from getting to the lane. Finally, an opponent may try to find an open man on the outside. However, Syracuse is usually able to get to the shooting man before he can get an open shot off. This means he either brings the ball down or shoots a contested jumper. Neither is a great option.

    It's a tough defense that leaves Michigan with very few options on Saturday night. There are flaws in the 2-3 zone, but Syracuse does a great job of masking them. The advantage for Michigan is that they have the tools to get the job done. The first way is in transition. The Wolverines have been one of the most efficient teams in the country in transition all season. They don't necessarily run an uptempo offense on a consistent basis, but when they do speed things up, good things usually happen. A huge part of this is Trey Burke, but having players like Tim Hardaway and GR3 with the ability to go up and get the ball near the basket is huge. Plus, Spike Albrecht and Mitch McGary have been showing they can run the ball in transition as well. Odds are Michigan isn't going to tear the Orange up all night in transition, but there's no reason to believe they can't at least do some damage.

    Michigan also has a few nice tools to attack Syracuse inside. The first is Trey Burke. Syracuse is fantastic are guarding the lane, but Burke has shown he can not only go around one defender, but multiple if given the opportunity. The 2-3 zone is going to give Burke a little more liberty on the outside and it might be just enough to get him inside for an opening and once he gets there, he usually converts. Along with this, the Orange aren't necessarily the best rebounding team. McGary might be able to pull down some rebounds inside since he will likely only be battling one Syracuse player to do so. Finally, Tim Hardaway Jr. will probably be placed in the "gap" of the 2-3 zone. He has shown that he can hit jumpshots and drive the basket. If Syracuse overlooks him, they could be in big trouble.

    Finally, everybody in the country knows that Michigan can shoot well outside. Not only do they have Burke, Hardaway, GR3, LeVert, and Spike, but they also have Nik Stauskas, who is arguably one of the best outside shooters in the country. Syracuse holds their opponents to a very low percentage from outside, but holding all of these players to that number is probably not going to happen, especially is Stauskas is hot like he was against Florida. The Wolverines will have to get shooters open by moving the ball and spreading out the defense. Indiana was unable to do this in their game against Syracuse, but the good news is that Michigan is a great passing team that isn't afraid to share the ball.

    The bottomline for the matchup between Michigan's offense and Syracuse's zone is that it's going to be a battle of who gives first. Odds are that Michigan's shooting numbers will take a hit, but odds are that Syracuse's defensive numbers will also take a hit. Whoever wins this battle has a pretty good shot at winning the game and getting a bid to the national championship on Monday night. It's hard to say that anybody is a "perfect" matchup against such a talented Syracuse defense, but there's no reason to believe that Michigan can't give this defense problems.

    Basketball Analyst For BTPowerhouse & Wolverine 247 - Follow me on Twitter:

  • Syracuse defense is so amazing that they lost 9 times year. I've said it a couple times today but I'm sick of ESPiN making it sound like they are the Miami Heat

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  • I'm SO tired of hearing about their 2-3 zone. I honestly think we win this game, easily. There is just something about our team that makes me feel like "destiny."

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  • Thank you for the interesting writeup Thomas. I just had to get up to give my son a bottle, and I needed a nice little read before going back to Well, lets see if I can steal a few more hours before the little guy needs help next...thanks and goodnight.goblue

  • ScoutExile

    Stop complaining about ESPN. I'm out here on the east coast, and Syracuse gets way more coverage than on the national ESPN station. It's sickening.

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  • Thomas......look up the word prolix......thanks

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  • Haha. I was going to try to keep it short, but it got a bit away from me. Too excited about the Final Four I guess. But I will say, I at least didn't post it as "quick thoughts" haha

    Basketball Analyst For BTPowerhouse & Wolverine 247 - Follow me on Twitter:

  • IMO, we are the worst match up for Syracuse out of anyone. We have 3 or 4 guys who can hit contested, deep, 3 balls with consistency. Our team is made to bust a zone...throw it to the high post and kick to a shooter. I think UM makes 12 or more three pointers in this game. Honestly....when playing a zone, its easy to shift your zone to one shooter, but with multiple shooters its impossible to cover them all. We will get wide open looks. We just gotta hope we're not ice cold. The only guy who will not have wide open looks will be Burke. I wouldn't mind seeing us flash THJ to the high post once in awhile and let him make an athletic play or find McGary underneath. GRIII is gonna need to put in a couple 3's, a couple dunks to keep the zone honest. But lets all get serious guys....Syracuse is good but they've been beat a lot this year and so have we. We're both 4 seeds, but I think the matchup is strongly in our favor. We got too many zone busters on the court at once. WE ON!!!!! goblue

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    "Those Who Stay...Will be Champions"

  • I think it's going to be an interesting match up. I feel like they're going to know that they need to spread the zone out a little more but that should open up lanes for driving and getting the ball to the free throw line. Nice subzero reference.

  • I read an article that said Belien is 0-9 vs syracuse in his years coaching. Hoping this will b the year to break that.