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Preview: Zone instincts, athleticism are Orange's greatest assets


MADISON, Wis. -- Jim Boeheim has been the head coach at Syracuse since 1976. During each of those 36 seasons, the Orange have almost exclusively employed a 2-3 zone defense.

Over the years, the identity of the Syracuse program has become synonymous with the zone. Much like Bo Ryan, Boeheim is a master at finding recruits with the physical tools needed to fit into his program. But instead of sound fundamentals and a smooth jump shot, Syracuse picks players with length, quickness and athleticism.

This makes it very difficult to play against, and perhaps even more difficult to prepare for. Phil Mitten addressed the challenge Wisconsin's scout team faced this week, and Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard discussed it at length in a press conference Monday

"Probably the biggest thing is it's instinctual for them," Gard said. "The players in that program have done it since the day they've been on campus. We're trying to teach it to our guys in three days. In addition to that, our parts aren't as big and quick as their parts are on their scout team."

But like any zone, Syracuse's 2-3 has its weaknesses. The Orange use their zone to try to force the opposition into mistakes and fuel their fast break offense. But this aggressive style of play also means Syracuse can be caught out of position at times, leaving them prone to giving up offensive rebounds. The Orange allowed 22 rebound to Kansas State in the third round.

"They gave up a lot to Kansas State, but they also create a lot of havoc with it and shot blocking with it. They get a lot of offense out of their defense---jumping passing lanes, deflections, disrupting offensive flow, those kind of things. There's things that they trade off for it, but they've gained more than they've given up over the years," Gard said.

Depth is another concern presented by Syracuse. Even without 7-foot center Fab Melo, the Orange have nine players that play at least 10 minutes a game.

Like the Badgers, the Orange rely on several players on offense. Six of the nine players mentioned above average more than seven points per game. By most accounts, though, the key to their offense is Scoop Jardine. The senior point guard is often the catalyst of Syracuse's quick-strike offense, which relies on athletic players who can finish at the rim.

"They believe they can do anything, and quite frankly, they probably can," Badgers point guard Jordan Taylor said. "They're all really talented [and] quick with the ball, especially Scoop. He's a floor general and he's extremely driven."

In the half court offense, the Orange rely on isolation and off-the-dribble action to free up their athletes. Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close said slowing down Syracuse in one-on-one situations would be a key for the Badgers' defense.

"What impresses me about their guards is their ability ability to beat people off the dribble. They're very athletic, they're good with the ball, they like to play one on one. They cause a lot of problems attacking and making plays for their bigs and making plays for their other guys," Close said.

As strong as Syracuse is, they looked vulnerable in a narrow second-round victory over UNC-Asheville. According to Big Ten Network, Bo Ryan has never beaten a No. 4 seed or better in the NCAA tournament.

Could this be the year?