Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone has been the beating heart of its basketball program ever since Jim Boeheim took over way back in the 70s. It became especially famed once the Big East became the best college basketball competition in the country. SU was known for its star power on the offensive end thanks to players like Leo Rautins, Rafael Addison, Pearl Washington, John Wallace and so on, and on defense, it’s always been the same thing, teamwork. Some guys have absolutely flourished in the zone, others have struggled. Though at the end of the day, the 2-3 epitomizes teamwork. It’s what made Syracuse so good back then and so good contemporarily. However with SU’s most recent struggles, notably the last half of basketball the Orange played in which they gave up 64 points to Pitt, it begs a question of where that prestige has gone. Have the Orange shifted to become an offensive-minded team? If so, why?
The last time Syracuse got close to college basketball glory was 2016. The team had it all, reliable scorers in Malachi Richardson and Trevor Cooney, a long, talented big man in Tyler Lydon and of course a leader, Michael Gbinije. That team didn’t exactly have the same offensive firepower of the ‘03 championship team or the ‘87 runner up. What it had was a solid unit on defense. Boeheim’s 2016 squad ranked 30th out of 351 defenses that season in points against. This season, as of writing this, Syracuse is 208th in that same statistic. Last year, 174th. Of course, last season we didn’t get to see whether SU had what it took to reach big dance due to COVID, but just 18 wins after the first game of the ACC tournament didn’t look promising.
Here are SU’s last 10 rankings in points against:
This Season: 208th (As of writing)
The years bolded are those in which the Orange made the tournament. Notice a trend? When the defense underperforms the team doesn’t win. Now what’s the reason that this team has failed to put out a solid defense as of late? Many point to the center. The anchor of the zone, under the basket, is the hardest to play. Some, like Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman, Fab Melo, and Rakeem Christmas have provided masterclasses on how to do that. Paschal Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe have not. It’s true SU has been lacking in the center department, but it’s not because they aren’t trying to recruit them. Darius Bazely now famously decommitted from the program. A kid who was a McDonald’s All-American, spurned Syracuse by deciding to take the non-traditional route to the NBA. Bazely forwent college basketball, worked out for a year instead and still landed in the first round of the NBA draft. Isaiah Stewart was a hopeful to fill the hole Bazely left in the hearts of Syracuse fans. He didn’t though, he instead followed Mike Hopkins to Washington. The Rochester native played 32 games last season under SU’s former assistant coach, scoring 17 points per game, and grabbing a shade under 9 rebounds. This past november he was selected 16th overall in the NBA draft. That one hurts.
Obviously Coach Boeheim still preaches the zone (as he should), and if all was perfect in the world Syracuse would be the best defensive team in the country, but without talent down low it’s a hard feat to accomplish. Sidibe got hurt at the beginning of the year, that doesn’t help. That’s left Marek Dolezaj to carry the load, he does his best, but the Slender Slovakian is undersized and outmatched when it comes to ACC bigs. Until Sidibe returns the Orange will struggle mightily, and until Boeheim lands another talented big, the program will struggle.