For the past 41 years of Jim Boeheim's coaching tenure, Syracuse men's basketball has had a reputation of playing one of the toughest 2-3 zone defenses in college basketball. In a stacked ACC conference that includes Virginia, Duke and North Carolina, the Orange finished second in scoring defense – holding teams to 64.5 points per game (15th in the country).
Its 2-3 zone defense held opponents to just 32 percent shooting from three-point range and 39 percent shooting from the field (eighth in the country), but again, that’s what an exceptional zone defense does. It forces teams to shoot.
During its 60-56 win over ASU men’s basketball in the First Four round of the NCAA tournament, Syracuse forced the Sun Devils to beat them from beyond the arc, and ASU played right into it.
“This was the lowest point total that we've had this season,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said in a post-game press conference. “And usually, we're scoring 56 in a half and we ended up with 56 … And we just didn't make enough shots. I thought our free throws hurt us, going 3-for-10. And then we just needed -- we shot 34 from 3 and we made 11, which was great. But we just needed to hit, like, two or three more.”
Even with Syracuse ahead 58-56 with under 15 seconds remaining in the game, instead of settling for a two-pointer to tie the game, the Orange forced ASU senior guard Shannon Evans II to shoot a step-back three and potentially win the game.
That is what a 2-3 zone defense, combined with the tallest team in the NCAA, is designed to do.
“It was their length, athleticism, the way they take away the corners, kind of taking away the middle, it was difficult,” ASU senior guard Kodi Justice said about Syracuse’s zone defense. “But I felt we attacked it as best we could. Like coach said, we made shots and we missed a few. But I felt like we were in the game. And our defense was pretty good tonight. And I felt we played pretty well.
Out of ASU’s 52 field goal attempts, 32 of them where from long-distance – yes, that is more than half the team’s field goal attempts. The Sun Devils shot 34 percent from three, and while that statistic isn’t necessarily horrible, it was the only number the team seemed focused on.
There were only a handful of times where ASU looked to attack the middle of Syracuse’s zone defense, find one of its guys on the high-post, or tried getting to the free throw line – they shot 30 percent from the charity stripe (3-for-10).
ASU senior guard Tra Holder and Evans combined for 25 points on 9-for-28 shooting, though seven of their nine field goals were three-pointers. Syracuse forced ASU’s top-two scorers to beat them from the outside and rarely gave Evans and Holder any room to operate anywhere inside the three-point line.
But, again, that was the plan and it propelled the Orange to victory.
“We, for the most part, got out on their shooters,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said after the game. “And for the most part we didn't let them get in the lane, the little guards. And when they did, we adjusted pretty well to it. We didn't give them anything real easy. To hold them to 56 points is, that's a pretty good night defensively."
ASU feasted on opponents playing man-to-man during non-conference play, shocking all of college basketball with its 12-0 start and No. 3 ranking. Although, it was the silver lining to teams in the Pac-12, as each opponent figured out ASU’s kryptonite – the zone defense.
It was only by coincidence, nevertheless, that ASU’s season came to an end at the hands of one of college basketball’s most effective zone defenses, Syracuse.