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What is the 2-3 Zone’s Real Weakness?

How do you beat the Syracuse zone? It’s an age old question. Actually, it’s a 23 year old question. Head Coach Jim Boeheim switched to a permanent 2-3 zone in 1996. Regardless, every time an opposing team slices up the zone, it is hereby declared that they “figured out how to beat the zone.” It’s a silly routine, because if it were possible to figure out how to beat the zone with some kind of tactical genius, the Orange would’ve stopped winning basketball games long ago.

The zone can’t be “figured out” any less than man defense can be “figured out,” but it does have unique and distinct weaknesses to go along with its strengths. These are the three most common complaints about Boehiem’s 2-3 zone.

  1. The Zone doesn’t defend the three-point shot
  2. The Zone gives up too many offensive rebounds
  3. The Zone doesn’t defend the high post

Number one is topical. Virginia, led by Kyle Guy, went 18/25 from beyond the arc in a 79-53 rout of Syracuse on Monday. But the  Orange’s numbers on the season suggest they’re not all that bad at defending the three. Opponents shoot 32.4% from three on SU, which ranks 80th nationally and 6th in the ACC. Opponents have attempted 790 triples over the SU defense, more than any other team in the conference. North Carolina has seen the second most opponent three-point attempts, with 754.  The number suggests this season’s 2-3 zone bates teams into shooting significantly more threes than usual, without the corresponding success.

When man defense gives up open threes, a common occurrence on all levels of basketball, nobody blames the system. When Syracuse gives up open looks from deep, it’s the zone’s fault. Boeheim’s zone is famous for its active forwards, which are prepared to step up high and defend the perimeter. The three point defense weakness is more myth than truth.

Number two is something even Jim Boeheim resigns himself to. In man defense, there should be a defender between the basket and the offensive player at all times. This makes it easy to box out, and every offensive board-crasher should be accounted for. In a zone defense, defenders have no set assignment so it’s difficult to find bodies to box out.  The stats don’t back up Syracuse on this one. Despite being the tallest team in the country, the Orange ranks 261st in rebound margin (-1.7). Defensive rebounding is a real weakness.

Number three is pretty tough to measure through statistics, but if you have eyes you know it’s true. Whatever you want to call it–The free throw line area, the ACC logo area, the high post area– it is open for business against the SU 2-3. Check out this montage of 2015-16 Virginia repeatedly exposing the high post against Trevor Cooney and the throwback Orange:

The patented 2-3 has a soft spot in the high post, a box-out deficiency, but NOT a three-point defense problem. Overall SU’s defense is pretty great this year. They’re 23rd in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency among all teams, and only NC State forces more turnovers in the ACC.


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