INDIANAPOLIS — Think Syracuse basketball, and the two things that leap to mind are veteran head coach Jim Boeheim and the 2-3 zone defense.
Through 45 seasons as the head coach of the Orange, Boeheim has developed, and continued to tweak, the fundamental zone that is taught as a foundation at every beginning basketball level. The way Syracuse plays it now, though, has little resemblance to the “guard this one smallish area” of the classic 2-3.
“They don’t just stand there. They raise the wings, they sink the wings, they change how they are going to play the middle guy. They’ll pressure you, they’ll try to gap everything,” said Huggins of some of the different ways in which the Orange defend out of the alignment.
|West Virginia (#3, 19-9) vs. SU (#11, 17-9)||Sun Mar 21 5:15 PM ET|
|Bankers Life Fieldhouse||Indianapolis, IN||TV: CBS|
|NET: WVU-24 SU-40||Series: SU 34-16||Last Game: SU 63-61|
|Twitter: @BlueGoldNews||Facebook: BlueGoldNews||Web: BlueGoldNews.com|
The play of the forwards (wings) is one of the biggest keys to the defense. Depending on the opposition, the Syracuse forwards will come out to deny passes to wing shooters and try to force them further away for the basket. That figures to be in play against West Virginia shooters such as Taz Sherman, Sean McNeil and Jalen Bridges. SU will also trap in the corners occasionally — something that WVU will have to be prepared to deal with as they run backside screens and options designed to get McNeil and Bridges free for shots from that location. Add in the 3-point games of Deuce McBride and Emmitt Matthews, and an interesting chess match looks to be on tap.
“They have a lot of guys on the back line that have a lot of bounce. length and athleticism. Their length has an effect on everything,” Huggins noted. “They throw a lot more at you than what they did back in the Big East days.”
West Virginia hopes to counter with tactics such as splitting the guards around the foul line with a pass to a high post — which could be one of several WVU players — and playing a high-low game with Derek Culver pinning a defender down low. The Mountaineers can also swing the ball to try to create movement and free up its array of perimeter shooters.
“I think it would be a lot harder if we couldn’t surround the zone with four guys who are capable of making shots,” Huggins noted.
WVU can’t just rely on shooting over the zone, however. First, Syracuse, as demonstrated, doesn’t sit back and allow that, and will contest Mountaineer shooters in range. Huggins doesn’t think WVU will resort to that, which could be a fatal error. The Mountaineers will fall back on a lot of experience his coaches have in devising their plans to get Orange defenders moving and to attack the seams of the defense.
The game will mark the second time in NCAA Tournament history where the two participating coaches will each have 900 career victories. The first instance came in 2018, when Jim Boeheim and Syracuse faced off against Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke in the Sweet Sixteen. Huggins and Boeheim have combined for 1,881 official triumphs in their careers.
That total does not include 101 Boeheim wins vacated by the NCAA in response to a recruiting scandal that included improper benefits to players.
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Syracuse has also been known for some shaky free throw shooting over its history, but like West Virginia’s reputation for mediocre shooting from the field, that’s something that doesn’t hold true this season. The Orange have made 78.6% of their attempts from the line this year, and have eight players making 70% or better.
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WVU is 4-2 at neutral sites this year, while Syracuse is 2-1. The Mountaineers are 1-13 in their last 14 meetings against the Orange, with the sole victory in that span an 81-61 triumph on Jan. 13, 2008 at the WVU Coliseum.
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Teams in the tournament are moving between the different venues in Indianapolis and nearby West Lafayette and Bloomington for their first and second round appearances to try to ensure than no squad gets an advantage of playing twice on the same court early on. That sparked the reference we’ve all been waiting for when discussing basketball in the state of Indiana.
“It’s like Hoosiers,” said Huggins of the seminal basketball classic as he responded to a question about playing in different venues. “You take the old tape measure out there, and what’d he say, ‘I think it’s exactly the same distance to the rim and the foul line as it is back in Hickory?'”