Breaking Down the Syracuse 2-3 Zone

Dylan Burkhardt
Jim%20Boehiem2-Syracuse%20reduced[1]After the selections and seedings of the NCAA basketball brackets,  Syracuse's Jim Boeheim gives his thoughts about the Orange's seeding and selection. Dennis Nett/The Post-Standard
Photo Credit: CNYCentral /

Jim Boeheim is widely renowned as the best zone coach in college basketball. He is one of the only coaches that utilizes a zone as his primary defense, rather than a change up, and he has been extremely successful. Michigan head coach John Beilein has not been immune to Boeheim’s zone, failing to knock off the Syracuse head man in 8 tries.

Looking back at the box scores from those games, a couple things become clear. Beilein’s teams routinely take care of the basketball but get beaten handily on the glass. Perhaps the most dramatic trend is that Boeheim’s teams routinely shoot significantly more free throws. In one contest, Beilein’s West Virginia team didn’t attempt a single free throw. Shooting tends to be a wash. When Beilein’s teams out-shoot Boeheim’s, you tend to see close games. If Beilein’s teams aren’t hitting their shots, the score tends to get out of hand.

Here’s what Beilein had to say about Syracuse’s zone five years ago:

“I don’t know how to beat it,” West Virginia head coach John Beilein said. “I’m 0-7 against Coach Boeheim and I haven’t found a way to beat him. And it’s so consistent every year. … You can’t beat it.”

In honor of Beilein’s ninth attempt at a win over Syracuse, here’s a look at the principles of the 2-3 zone and some of the best ways to beat it.

Contrary to popular belief, Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is not a “passive defense” by any means. It’s not a defense that Jim Boeheim uses to mask his team’s weaknesses, rather it’s a defense he uses to utilize his team’s length and athleticism. It’s a defense that Syracuse has specifically targeted their recruiting toward and it can be devastating to face. There are a multitude of traps that Boeheim can run out of the zone but it is not generally known for forcing a lot of turnovers. Instead the zone holds the opposition to a low shooting percentage by forcing them into uncomfortable shots altered by the length and athleticism of its defenders.

There are a number of great articles that have been written about Boeheim’s zone. Fran Fraschilla wrote a pair of columns in 2003, one documenting how the zone works, the other about how to beat it. The X’s and O’s of Basketball has also posted a feature on the zone. Here’s another interesting piece from The Mikan Drill that discusses how William & Mary found success versus Syracuse last week. There’s also a nice ESPN Game Day video that’ we’ve embedded here:

Basic Movement

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Photos: ESPN

The key to the 2-3 zone is that the entire defense moves with the basketball. As the ball is passed to the wing, the man in the corner will bump to the ball, then retreat to the corner. As the offense moves the ball, the entire defense constantly reacts. The defense moving with the ball is both a strength and a weakness of the defense. If one slide is late, it will leave a vulnerability for the offense to exploit. Most notably, the defense is vulnerable to ball fakes, as they force the defense to react before the ball is actually passed.


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One of the most stand traps in the 2-3 zone is in the corner. (Photos: Xs and Os)

Syracuse has been so effective with the zone because of their length and athleticism. This year’s starting line up is no different, measured 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-9, and 7-0. Off the bench there’s more of the same with the rotation rounding out at 6-10, 6-4, 6-8, 6-8, and 6-6. This length and athleticism is fatal once Syracuse attempts to trap opposing ball carriers. Syracuse can trap almost anywhere on the floor but one of the most common areas is the corner. As you can see in the diagram above, defenders 1 and 4 trap the ball handler in the corner while 2, 3, and 5 deny the available passes. Essentially the only way to get out of the trap is to dribble through it.

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Trapping the short corner (left) and trapping the point guard (right). Photos (ESPN/Xs and Os)

Syracuse has the ability to trap all over the court, but these are two more common “trap zones.” In the first picture you can see the ball entering the “short corner” after ball reversal. The short corner is a weak spot of the 2-3 zone because the wing defender temporarily leaves it unguarded while bumping up to the wing. Syracuse counters this weakness by executing a trap here, leaving the ball handler in the short corner with little option but to dribble out of the trap. They also have the ability to “jump” the point guard, trapping him as he crosses the court and denying passes to the wings.

Beating the Zone

There are several keys to beating the 2-3 zone. First off, you need to make the zone work. It’s important to show great patience when facing the zone and consistently move the ball. The first “open” shot isn’t always the best shot, and it’s important to have great ball movement when facing the zone. Ball reversal is one of the easiest ways to beat the zone because you can move the ball faster than the defense can react. Passing the ball passively around the perimeter isn’t help, there needs to be aggressive intentions behind moving the ball.

It’s also extremely important to attack the gaps of the zone. By penetrating the gaps, you force multiple defenders in the zone to collapse, setting up advantages (4 on 3, 3 on 2) at other positions on the court.

A third way to attack the zone is to get the ball in the high post. Getting the ball inside the zone is typically a goal of any zone offense. Similar to penetrating the gaps, getting inside the zone either forces the defense to collapse or yields a wide open jump shot.

As far as Michigan is concerned, they are undoubtedly going to shoot a good amount of threes. In Beilein’s six games versus Boeheim at Syracuse, his teams attempted 51% of their field goals from three point range. In those same six games, his teams have made 29% of those three point attempts. Like it or not, three point shooting will play a major role in this game.

In the high post, I can see Michigan trying to use guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Zack Novak. When you get the ball to the high post you have to do something with it and both of these guys should be sufficient options to shoot or find a teammate.

With such a young team, Beilein will undoubtedly try to keep things relatively simple. One thing I will be looking for is to see how well Darius Morris can penetrate the zone and create for others. It will also be worth noting how Michigan responds to Syracuse’s first punch, so to speak. Whether it’s the first drive to the hoop that is sent to the fifth row, or just a routine jumpshot that wouldn’t have been blocked in earlier games.

Beilein vs. Boeheim Boxscores

  • Love this.

  • Evan

    GO BLUE i have faith in us i know we can win

  • formerlyanonymous

    Been scouting Syracuse a couple games this weekend in preparation for the showdown with the girlfriend (huge ‘Cuse fan). It seems like Syracuse has run a lot more man this season. Hell, the girlfriend even noticed and mentioned how wrong it looked.

    Are we better off with them playing man?

    • Beast1530

      If Syracuse is playing man to man defense, it benefits Michigan because JB’s motion offense is predicted on backdoor cut and pressure on every individual defenders. If Syracuse plays 2-3 zone, JB’s offense is almost useless because motion offense doesn’t do much especially the backdoor cut. Michigan’s bigs have to make a living in the middle and make correct decision when they get the ball in the middle of the zone. I much rather have Syracuse play man to man defense rather than their trademark 2-3 zone.

  • Grandchamp

    I’m interested to see what the point spread will be, I am expecting 5 or 6.

  • Nate the Newt

    The picture of old Boehiem (right side) looks like Jack Nicholson’s Joker without face paint.

    I’m glad I could contribute significantly to this thread.

    • JimC

      Well the younger Boeheim reminds me of Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) from the Vacation movies.

      • Nate the Newt

        Indeed he does. Too bad he’s not holding a bee-bee gun in that picture.

  • Tweeter

    Re: State looks like they are playing me first basketball right now. They are usually so good at getting looks out of their sets, but right now everything looks like it is one-on-one. I kinda get the feeling that Izzo is just letting them go. Sort of saying you think you are so good on your own, go out there and see what happens. Just so when they struggle he can say I told you so and reel them back in to playing his way. One other thing I think they are really missing is perimeter defense. Allen was probably their best last year and without him they are struggling to stop penetration.

    • Sam

      Or maybe you just have never watched a Tom Izzo team before, cause his philosophy in general is to just let them go 1-on-1 as much as they want.

      • Mith

        Boy, Sam, I guess I’ve never watched them either then, because I don’t remember them playing like that. Must have been some other team called Michigan State.

  • Kenny

    Great analysis. Love it.

  • maxwell’s demon

    Dylan – This is great. Would be awesome if we could have some instructional tidbits like this throughout the season.

  • Alex

    Eddie Hightower is reffing in Maui. Hopefully it is a competitive game against Cuse.

  • JimC

    I was so hoping Sparty would lose again last night.

    Happy Thanksgiving, even to Sparty.