Commentary

Cuse's defensive prowess is legit

Boeheim's 2-3 zone gets a lot of hype, and numbers show that its rep is well-earned

Originally Published: July 27, 2011
By John Gasaway | ESPN Insider
Arinze Onuaku and Kris Joseph Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesLed by long athletes like Kris Joseph, Syracuse's defense has been dominant.

There is no college basketball coach more closely identified with a particular defensive scheme than Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim is with his "patented" 2-3 zone. For years, the Orange 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.

At the same time, 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. They are 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 for the past few years. Does the zone work? Does playing a zone really force opponents to shoot more 3s 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 for all of the above. Let's go to the numbers.