During its current two-game losing streak, Syracuse has been dominated once on each side of the floor. First, South Carolina completely shut down the Orange’s offense over the weekend, limiting SU to 50 points (including an embarrassing eight in the paint) on 31.8 percent shooting. Then, Wisconsin picked apart Jim Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone on its way to an efficient 77 points (with an effective field goal percentage above 58) and a comfortable win on Wednesday night.
But Orange Nation shouldn’t hit the panic button yet. The Gamecocks’ defense flustered an inexperienced Syracuse group with pressure on the perimeter and stifling rim protection. If the two teams play that game in February, after SU builds chemistry and has some experience against good, Power Five defenses, the result may be very different.
Wisconsin represented another nightmare matchup for Syracuse, but for a different reason: the Badgers are tailor-made to shred a 2-3 zone. They crash the offensive boards, pass extremely well, and have tons of experience.
First, Wisconsin cleans the offensive glass at an elite level. The Badgers pull down 40.5 percent of their missed shots, the third-best offensive rebounding rate in the nation. They feature a pair of twin towers in the frontcourt, Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes, who have terrorized the Orange for two years. Last year, when Wisconsin topped the Orange in the Carrier Dome, its two big men combined for 27 boards — more than Syracuse grabbed as an entire team.
Good offensive rebounding teams can destroy a zone because it’s difficult for defenders to find an opponent to box out. In man-to-man, you just turn around and introduce your butt to the guy you were guarding; in a zone, you have to search for someone, and by the time you find him, he could already be in great rebounding position.
On Wednesday, SU held its own on the boards in the first half, and actually out-rebounded the Badgers, 16-15, in the opening 20 minutes. But disaster struck in the second: Wisconsin mauled the Orange in the rebounding battle, 25-9. Syracuse pulled down less than one rebound per two minutes in the second half. That’s embarrassing — but it was partially a product of the matchup.
Next, the Badgers move the ball as well as any team in the country. They’ll never overwhelm opponents with athleticism, but they play basketball the way it was meant to be played; your dad probably loves this team. Wisconsin averages 15.4 assists per game, which ranks 70th in the nation. But that doesn’t do its passing prowess justice — just watch the Badgers play, and you can tell they’ve been coached to zip the ball around several times before putting up a shot.
Against Syracuse, Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes transformed into the prototypical zone-buster, orchestrating his team’s offense from the high post. The senior piled up 10 assists and finished one point shy of a triple-double. The performance was reminiscent of Brice Johnson’s when North Carolina visited Central New York last year; the Tar Heels forward dropped eight dimes, more than double his career high, when UNC coach Roy Williams asked him to facilitate from the free-throw line area. Big men who can pass have always been the zone’s kryptonite, and on Wednesday, Hayes proved that the theory still holds true.
Finally, the Badgers aren’t intimidated or caught off-guard by the zone, because they’ve seen it before, and they’ve been playing together for a while. Wisconsin brought back almost every key contributor from last year’s team — players on the current roster soaked up more than 85 percent of the squad’s minutes in 2015-16, giving the Badgers the most continuity in the nation, according to KenPom.com.
Wisconsin carved up the Syracuse defense, but not every opponent is built to torch the zone. And remember, the Badgers are a fantastic team, in a vacuum; they’re ranked 17th for a reason, and their only losses have come against teams currently slotted inside the national top 10 (No. 10 Creighton and third-ranked North Carolina). Wednesday’s loss was ugly, but Orange fans shouldn’t lose sleep over it.