Syracuse Zone is for Cowards, but the Orange Have the Tournament’s Best D

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Zone is for Cowards.

It is a catchphrase ESPN’s Bomani Jones has made famous throughout his radio and television career. It is a remark entirely aimed at one specific team, and those who follow Syracuse basketball know it all too well.

A defensive strategy viewed as soft and one that was outright banned from the NBA until very recently (and with modifications compared to the amateur ranks), zone basketball is seen as something of a cop-out. Rather than a competition between an offensive player and a defensive player, may-the-best-man-win, zone does take away some of the combativeness out of the game.

However – when played with the type of length the current Syracuse Orange roster has with Oshae Brissett and Tyus Battle – it can lock opposing offenses into a stranglehold; slowly suffocating any hope of an inside look at the basket and resigning teams to countless empty trips that end with a contested jumpshot.

Jim Boeheim’s 2017-18 Orange – an offensively limited group that went 8-10 in the ACC regular season – used the philosophy of the Syracuse 2-3 Zone expertly during the opening weekend of the tournament in a week where they won three games to punch their Sweet 16 ticket.

Underdogs in all three games, the Orange held all three of their opponents to under 60 points. Defeating the high powered Arizona State offense led by Trae Holder in the First Four before stymying TCU in the Round of 64 in a 57-52 rock fight that was torture for anyone who had the idea of betting the Over, yet a masterpiece for Boeheim’s boys.

In the Round of 32, it was expected Syracuse would finally meet their maker against Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans. After all, Miles Bridges and his outside shooting was expected to give the Spartans a dimension TCU did not have on offense.

The element of Bridges and a Spartans team that boasted above average outside shooting all season, appeared to a combination Syracuse would fail to overcome with their limited offensive firepower.

Instead, the zone once again put a guillotine choke on yet another favored opponent. Bridges scored just 11 points and after getting enough stops to stay in the game until winning time, Syracuse again made the plays needed to close out the game.

Most impressively for Syracuse, they held the Spartans to a paltry 53 points. Perhaps it was to be expected after Northwestern gave Michigan State trouble with a zone defense in B1G Ten play, yet the amped-up version of Syracuse’s very lengthy zone took things to another dimension in a third game in five days for a team many felt shouldn’t have been selected among the field of 68.

And that is where the problem lies in the Zone is for Cowards philosophy. In theory, the act of giving up on the individual battle of two athletes competing against one another is a cowardly act. A soft move, if you subscribe to the notion an athlete should never concede once challenged individually by an opponent.

However, to suggest this Syracuse team is incapable of guarding any player in the nation is a false one. Oshae Brissett has exhibited gritty play on both ends of the floor all season and his battery mates in Tyus Battle and Frank Howard are both also athletes who are fully capable of matching up athletically in mostly every matchup they would be given in a man to man system.

Beyond the athletic gifts of Syracuse, it is hard to accept calling a team that held three opponents to under 60 points in one week of NCAA Tournament play as cowardly. It took incredible toughness and fortitude for Syracuse to get to this point, including the physical demands of matching up and scrapping against a tough Tom Izzo-coached team to punch a ticket into the second weekend.

Against Duke, Syracuse are likely in a position that offers no escape. The Blue Devils play a 2-3 Zone themselves this season and with Marvin Bagley, Coach K has a player he can instruct his players to lob it into to penetrate the middle of the Syracuse zone will be an incredible obstacle to overcome on Friday night.

Yet, Syracuse’s defense will still give them a chance at yet another upset against a superior offensive team. If the Orange can find a way to hold Duke to the 55-65 point range – while getting enough out of Brissett, Battle, and Howard on offense – the realm of possibility will include the chance of a Syracuse upset of the star-studded Blue Devils.

Like it or not, the Syracuse Zone is turning cynics into believers and earning a hated defensive philosophy some respect. With the best defense in the tournament and a tenacious attitude towards the most important end of the floor, I dare you to call them cowardly.