First Take: Syracuse

Dylan Burkhardt

The first statistic that is going to be broadcast on repeat this week: John Beilein is 0-9 against Jim Boeheim. Two of those wins were while Beilein was at Richmond, six while he was at West Virginia and one while he was at Michigan.

This was John Beilein eight 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.”

Beilein hopes he found the answer in the last eight years: talent. The difference between those games and this one is that now Beilein has a roster loaded with future pros; easily the most talented of his career. But Boeheim’s roster is no slouch. This is the best defensive team that Boeheim has fielded in the Ken Pomeroy era (2003 onward).

Michigan vs. Zone Defense

Michigan hasn’t played against many zone defenses. The Wolverines have faced zone defense on 325 possessions this year, scoring 328 points for a respectable 1.01 points per trip. That scoring output ranks a solid 86th percentile nationally. All of that sounds good but this is a small sample, just 14% of Michigan’s half court possessions on the season.

Most of the zone defenses that Michigan has faced this season play zone because they aren’t great; not because they have a great zone. The Wolverines did face former Syracuse assistant Rob Murphy at Eastern Michigan and dismantled the Eagles to the tune of 1.33 points per possession but using that as a comparison is akin to South Dakota State comparing Michigan to UMKC.

Syracuse’s zone is unlike any other because the Orange have such great length and have great ability to turn teams over or block shots despite playing a zone defense. The Orange have the fourth best effective field goal defense in the country, allowing opponents to shoot 43% on twos (20th) and 28% on threes (3rd). They rank 1st nationally in blocked shot percentage, blocking 19% of their opponents’ attempts, and seventh in steal percentage.

Indiana had 34% of their shots blocked and turned the ball over on 28% of their offensive possessions; watching a very good – previously No. 1 – offensive Indiana team that went out with a whimper against the Syracuse zone should serve as a warning for how devastating the Syracuse zone can be.

Tim Hardaway Jr. in the middle but others just as critical

Conventional wisdom says Tim Hardaway Jr. is the ideal player to play in the middle of the Syracuse 2-3 zone. Hardaway has prototypical size, a good midrange game, can slash to the basket, and is a pretty good passer. He fits the mold of the standard player to sit in the middle of the 2-3 zone in the high post.

But the numbers don’t paint Hardaway as the best zone scorer on Michigan’s roster by any means.

Overall % Time PPP Rank Rating FG% aFG% %Score
Trey Burke 19.6% 1.031 74% Very Good 44.4% 57.4% 40.6%
Tim Hardaway Jr 16.5% 0.833 46% Average 35.6% 44.4% 35.2%
Nik Stauskas 15.3% 1.560 99% Excellent 59.1% 83.0% 58.0%
Glenn Robinson III 12.2% 1.075 79% Very Good 46.9% 50.0% 52.5%
Jordan Morgan 8.9% 0.966 66% Very Good 52.0% 52.0% 48.3%
Mitch McGary 8.3% 0.778 37% Average 38.1% 38.1% 40.7%
Caris LeVert 7.0% 0.739 31% Average 28.6% 40.5% 26.1%
Spike Albrecht 3.1% 0.900 56% Good 33.30% 50.0% 30.0%

Stats from Synergy Sports

The key might be Hardaway drawing in the defense in the high post and kicking the ball out to Burke and Stauskas, who both love to shoot against the zone. Getting the ball into Hardaway and then back out to the shooters on the outside will eventually force ‘Cuse defenders out of position.

I wrote about Syracuse’s 2-3 zone and how to beat it almost three years ago before Michigan and Syracuse faced off in the Atlantic City in November of 2010. The basic keys to beating the zone are: attack the gaps and force numbers advantages, get the ball in the high post or reverse the ball effectively for open shots.

While Burke and Stauskas are both great against the zone, their effectiveness is likely to come from different scenarios. Michigan will need Burke to get in the gaps and create for his teammates; something he’s proven time and again that he’s capable of. Fran Fraschilla wrote this in 2003 while previewing a Texas-Syracuse Final Four matchup, replace Ford with Burke and you get the picture.

The easiest way to score against a zone is to beat it down court. Using Ford’s ability in the open court to get easy baskets before Syracuse can get back to its zone will be crucial to the Longhorns’ success. Texas will also count on Ford’s quickness to attack the top of the zone with dribble penetration, forcing Duany and McNamara to contain him. This will create, with quick ball movement, a “4-on-3” advantage, temporarily, to get some open looks for Mouton, Ivey, and Harris.

Texas must also set screens at the top of the zone to create confusion as to who will be responsible for Ford. This gives him a different way to penetrate into the lane from the top. Also, I would look for Ford to get the ball to Thomas and Buckman in the middle of the zone on “flash cuts” from behind the zone, where they can catch it, draw defenders, and kick it back out to the ‘Horns shooters. Keep in mind, Auburn put an athletic Marquis Daniels in the middle to catch and create, and it nearly got the Tigers past the ‘Cuse in the Sweet 16.

Stauskas (off the charts) and Robinson (very good) are both effective zone players but they will have different roles. Michigan will try to float Robinson in the short corner of the zone, something Beilein will also likely try with McGary, while Stauskas is going to need to be ready to fire off of Burke’s drive and kick. We should still see a fair share of ball screens against the zone, Michigan has run ball screens 9% of the time against the zone and scores an impressive 1.21 points per trip in those situations. A high ball screen will give Burke a better opportunity to find a gap in the zone and create offense.

Syracuse’s length is what makes it particularly dangerous. The Orange have an average height of 79.1 inches, second best in the country. There’s only one player, Brandon Triche, in the top of the Syracuse rotation that is shorter than 6-foot-6, making it especially difficulty to attempt long range shots. There’s a lot of talk about the randomness of 3-point defense but Syracuse’s defense has ranked in the top 50 nationally in each of the past five seasons in 3-point defense and ranks a ridiculous 8th this season. The Orange’s tournament performance has only bolstered that effectiveness.

Offense, too

The Orange aren’t a great offensive team, failing to reach a point per-possession twice in the NCAA tournament but they aren’t bad either. Syracuse is 21st nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and 5th in the Big East in per-possession offensive output.

Syracuse isn’t a great shooting team – 49% on twos, 34% on threes, 49% eFG% for the year; 47% on twos, 30% on threes, 46% eFG% in Big East play – but is a great offensive rebounding team. The Orange rebounded 39 percent of their missed shots for the season, 8th best nationally, and weren’t far behind at 38 percent in Big East play. Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas are among the best offensive rebounders in the country but across all positions to Orange are aggressive in crashing the glass.

Similar to Kansas, the Orange offense features a lot of spot up possessions. 22% of Syracuse’s offensive possessions are spot ups and the Orange score just .88 points per possession, 45th percentile nationally.Syracuse is a team that likes to run though, 17% of its offensive possessions come in transition and the Orange score 1.21 points per transition possession, 81st percentile.

Michigan’s defense seems fairly well equipped to defend Syracuse on one condition: the Wolverines need to hold their own on the defensive glass. Michigan’s defensive rebounding has been terrific in the NCAA Tournament and is the primary reason that the Wolverines have shown such steady defensive improvement. Michigan’s defensive rebounding percentage of 78% in tournament games is worlds better than its 67% rate in Big Ten play.

Michigan’s defensive rebounding is critical because it leads to offense. Mitch McGary, who has 32 defensive rebounds in four tournament games, continues to be phenomenal at rebounding the ball and outleting it to start a fast break. Not only are defensive rebounds successful stops, they are opportunities to score against the Orange before the 2-3 zone is set.

  • great breakdown, I’m still shocked that Cream and IU couldn’t come up with a solid gameplan against the zone. Syracuse runs a better than average 2-3 zone, but hit the middle, and reverse the ball and the shots are there. Nik needs to get 6-8 3’s of for us to be in a spot to win. They gotta be ready to shoot, IU was hesitant and not prepared to knock them down.

    • It’s tough to game plan for 6-8, 6-6 guards and wings defending jump shots, especially for IU who has notoriously little guards.

      IU had the best zone offense in the Big Ten by a wide margin heading into that game and look what happened.

      • gpsimms

        The one that surprised me is Watford, I mean that dude is a tall shooter. He only got 5 attempts. Syracuse’s zone needs to be credited for that, I think.

        I’m just really hoping that the way Timmy jumps himself open (i.e. he jumps so high on his J’s that he can be open without much room), and Stauskus/Robinson’s length on the wings is a big enough advantage over the Hulls/Sheehey type shooters that we have a better day.

      • mikey_mac

        Ferrell was a liability in that game, because he can’t shoot. Michigan’s ability to put shooters on the court at 1 through 4 is a big advantage.

    • Billiam

      Watch the tape again my friend. When the ball goes to the middle, ‘Cuse players actually defend the PERIMETER, rather than sag in. It’s not the normal 2-3; getting to the FT line then kicking doesn’t work because they don’t sag. The plays which have been most effective have been (believe it or not) the drives.

      I can’t overstate this: when the ball goes middle, you can’t kick against these guys. You need to drive from the middle, but their C can also block those shots (as we saw with Zeller). The way to beat this zone (other than fast-break) is more about cuts and drives than it is shooting over the top. To reiterate: when the ball is in the middle, they look more like MAN-To-MAN defense than they do a zone. If you doubt me, check the tapes.

      • That’s actually a good point… I think penetration is the key but you’ll still see a lot of Tim around the free throw line.

        • MikeInOH

          Mitch has had a few nice drives from the free throw line in each of the last few games. The one against Florida, right before Spike’s steal and dipsy-doo, was a nice finish with his right hand. However, Zeller couldn’t score one-on-one vs Christmas. But he was also a black hole. I think Mitch might be an excellent passer from the high post.
          Beilein, not surprisingly, likes a lot of motion vs the zone.People rotate through the high post. Some, like Nick, do it just to create movement. Tim is the real threat. He makes himself a real nice target when he flashes. He missed a couple vs Florida’s zone so hopefully his stroke will return to what it was at the Palace.
          It looked like Crean ran some stationary sets hoping Yogi et al could penetrate the gaps. Michigan will attack the same gaps but hopefully with ‘cuse guys on the move and slightly out of position because of Michigan’s motion.

    • DutchHart

      Syracuse fan here. Good to see some solid discussion on what can break down the zone. The biggest thing with Cuse’s zone is that they commit to it. It’s not there as the “curveball” defense. You won’t see all the normal holes that show up when someone overcommits or slides improperly.

      The other thing is the length of the zone which tends to cover up those holes:

      Triche – 6’4″, Wingspan 6’10”
      Carter-Williams – 6’6″ – Wingspan 7’0″

      Southerland – 6’8 – Wingspan 7’3″
      Fair – 6’7 – Wingspan 6’9″
      Grant – 6’8″ – Wingspan 7’2″

      Christmas – 6’9″ – Wingspan 7’3″
      Keita – 6’10” – Wingspan Unknown, well over 7′
      Coleman – 6’9″ – Wingspan 7’2″

      Just to give a little insight

      That said, I’m definitely worried about the perimeter threat and Burke slashing against the zone. Our centers tend to stay home, so I’m not as worried about McGary catching the dump down from Burke that’s been so effective for you guys, but Burke, Hardaway and Strauskas definitely can get the job done.

  • brent schmid

    Hey Dylan:

    My name is Brent Schmid and I am extremely interested in sport journalism and interpretation. I was curious if you needed any help on your site in terms of writing any pieces regarding Michigan basketball or needed any general assistance. I have posted below a piece I wrote this morning for your consideration. If there’s anything i can do, shoot me an email at

    Louisville vs. Wichita State and Michigan vs. Syracuse. Who would have thought? But isn’t that why we love this tournament? Littered with Cinderella’s the 2013 NCAA Men’s Tournament has been an unbelievable watch (unless you’re a New Mexico fan). Which leads me to say that in the sporting world, there is nothing more exciting than March Madness.

    Louisville, the well coached, always poised for a deep run, favorite of the tournament. At least one team did what they were predicted to do. One of the best back courts in the nation, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, have elevated their tournament play. They cruise into the Final Four on a 14 game winning streak. If that wasn’t enough reason to bet on them, there’s also the fact that they’re playing for a fallen teammate. After witnessing the most gruesome injury I have ever seen live happen to Kevin Ware, it is obvious that the Cradinals are rallying around him (best of luck on a speedy recovery). Rick Pitino’s team remains in the last four.

    Another team, easily the biggest surprise of the tournament, is Wichita State. This is a team that has created quite a buzz in terms of mid-majors over the past decade. The 9 seed that took down the 1 seeded Zags and the 2 seeded Buckeyes, look to be on a mission. Avid college basketball fans know who they are, but when you lose your 5 top point scorers, a run like this is next to impossible to predict. Gregg Marshall’s Shockers are heading to Georgia.

    Then there’s Michigan, a once top ranked team that stumbled into the tournament playing their worst basketball of the year. Strong point guard play from Wooden Award front-runner Trey Burke and freshmen playing like 5th year seniors have the Wolverine’s finally living up to their potential. It seems as if this team is finally having a selection of role players to depend on, much like was apparent in their 16-0 start but inconsistent in Big 10 play. John Beilein’s squad is Final Four bound.
    Finally is another school that was battling for the one spot throughout the year, Syracuse, tripped up a little as the season went on, caught fire again, and boom. Stifling 2-3 zone defense has led this team to a place they are familiar with, April basketball. Length on the defensive end made one of the most efficient offenses in Indiana look like an NIT team. Jim Boeheim and the Orange will be in Atlanta.

    Louisville is on fire right now. They are an organized blur on the court. Speed and endurance will get you “trapped” if you’re not prepared. One of the best pressing teams in the country has caused havoc throughout the tournament. Quick, controlled guard play mixed with some bruisers on the inside create the prefect combination for a championship team. It also helps when your 6’11” Center, Gorgui Dieng, is knocking down 15 foot jumpers like he did against Duke. But the Shockers feel unstoppable right now. They have beat up on teams that were said to be big time squads. A big game could come from numerous Shocker players, but they will look to Cleanthony Early, the Junior forward, to keep them in this game. The key to this game will be Louisville’s press vs. Wichita State’s deep rotation.
    The infamous 2-3 zone of Syracuse has caused problems for all opponents throughout March Madness. No other team has perfected the zone quite like the Boeheim led Orange. He recruits lengthy athletes who can clog up passing lanes and alter shots. A 6’6″ point guard in Michael Carter-Williams anchors this stingy defense. However, if there was a team that could break it down, it would be the Wolverines. Coached by one of the best short-term preparation minds in the country, Beilein will have his team prepared. It also helps that 4 of the Wolverines 5 starters can stroke it from 3 and the one starter who can’t, is stretching the D and becoming an offensive board monster. I believe the key to this game will be Syracuse’s length vs. Michigan’s ability to balance easy baskets with long range ones.

  • snoopblue

    I wonder of Boeheim will start the game off cheating a little bit with Stauskas and stretching the zone to where he is on the perimeter. He’d probably wait and see how we shoot and who has the hot hand. If they do decide to stretch it, I hope we’re able to take advantage of the gaps.

    That McGary/Christmas matchup will be fun to watch. If things go well, I’ll be photoshopping Santa hats on McGary Saturday night. My life is so exciting, I know. Lol.

    • rlcBlue

      Rakeem Christmas is such a fabulous name. He really deserves teammates like Irving Ramadan and Krishna Kwanzaa, though…

  • rlcBlue

    Great stuff, Dylan.

    I will say this about EMU’s zone and then shut up: it’s not Syracuse, but it’s the closest anybody else comes to it. The family resemblance shows up in the profiles:

    EMU SU
    eFG% 82nd 4th
    TO% 38th 19th
    OR% 334th 279th
    FTA/FGA% 215th 156th

    3P% 16th 3rd
    2P% 197th 20th
    Block% 4th 1st
    Steal% 20th 7th

    They have the same strengths and weaknesses, except for Eastern’s problems with two point defense – and I wonder how much of that is allowing too many transition opportunities. It’s striking how many fouls they commit, given that they’re playing zone all the time. And of course the offensive boards are open.

    Of course the big difference is that Syracuse has former McDonalds All-Americans where Eastern has future McDonalds employees, but a big part of that difference shows up on offense: we trounced EMU by getting lots of transition baskets before their zone could set up – remember the five-on-none break? As you correctly point out, getting stops against Syracuse in the half court will be a huge part of our success. If we get clean stops we can run and score; if they can’t set up the zone, they won’t get turnovers and blocks and won’t be able to run and score.

    So the matchups between our defense and their offense in the half-court will be big. We absolutely have to control penetration by MCW and Triche, which I think Burke and Hardaway and LeVert have a chance of doing. Stauskas will mostly draw Southerland – is he Just a Shooter? I haven’t watched much Syracuse basketball, but he shoots fewer twos and FTs than even Nik. I suspect one thing the Orange will do is try to force Nik to switch onto one of the guards and then try to beat him one-on-one.

    And then there will be the recurring theme of the power forward spot – Syracuse will always have a 6’9″ or taller four man on the floor, so there will be a strong temptation to post up GRIII on defense. I don’t think post offense is C.J. Fair’s thing, though.
    And as you said – defensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, defensive rebounding.

  • MikeInOH

    Syracuse has been trapping most baseline plays too. Funneling things to the short corner/sideline. Their length makes it difficult to throw over the top of the trap. Beilein has impressed me with some new BLOB sets…hope he keeps his wizardry going.

  • MGoTweeter

    I think the biggest key for michigan beating the cuse zone, is not playing offense against it as much as possible. Defense is the real key. Michigan needs to create turnovers and rebound well. Then get up the floor before cuse can get set. Defense to transition offense is priority one.

    When michigan is forced to play in the half court Dylan and many of you hit on the key points. One thing that really hurt Indiana a lot was when they did get the ball in the middle to cutters, usually zeller, he was reluctant to shoot from the high post and instead forced shots at the basket.

    • MGoTweeter

      Stupid iPhone cut off the rest and I can’t edit. Oh well

      Anyway, when th jr, mcgary or Robinson do get the ball in the high post they have to take and make that shot some. That will suck the defenders in and open the wings for threes or back door layups. Indiana could not do that and so cuse never bothered to guard zeller when he got the ball. They stayed at home on shooters and waited at the rim to block him.

    • Wayman Britt

      I agree, it’s all about how UM plays defense. Need stops and boards to create baskets.

  • TheGeneral

    Indiana didn’t have a good plan. Zeller isn’t the passer or shooter you need in the middle. He will always attack the hoop so the post defenders can stay home. We need Timmy to make shots in the middle to draw the bigs out. Then McGary can seal or GRIII can slash behind them. If Timmy is off again it gets really complicated.

  • Champswest

    I think Robinson will have a hard time shooting over the zone because he doesn’t shoot quickly.

  • Drew

    Maybe in looking how to beat this zone we should look at the last game that it was dismantled, the second half of the Big East title game against Louisville. What did they do? They went to a look with two guys in the middle of the zone with one at each elbow, when they got the ball in to one of them the guy at the other elbow went down and tried to seal. The man with the ball then turns and with two shooters in the corners you are effectively playing 4 vs 3(the back line of the zone). This is what UL did and they scored 56 points in the second half. Dylan i’m interested if after you look at what i’m describing here, you think this is what Mich should do. After watching that game i am surprised no one else has done this it seems the other teams like IU think they can just move the ball quickly and the zone will break down but that is not what happens against the cuse and Boeheim, you have to be controlled and smart with your passes and your scheme.

  • Mortimer

    Any ideas how tOSU did it last year? Guys named Buford, Diebler, and Sulinger sure helped, but I too found the Louisville double post interesting…

  • ZRL

    I remember when we played Eastern, Trey could get a wide a wide open 15 footer any time he wanted by calling for a ball screen and then taking a couple dribbles in and to the left. Since Nik was standing in the left corner, the side man couldn’t help off. Does anyone know how Cuse defends this? There are only a handful of cbb players that can consistently hit off the dribble long 2’s like Trey can, so I wouldn’t be suprised if this is something that SU also gives up.

    • $584645

      Cuse guards are excellent at fighting over the top of screens.

  • Criminal_Appeal

    Visiting Syracuse fan. I actually think the most important thing Michigan can do against the zone is not turn the ball over. This likely won’t be an especially high scoring game, and Michigan will get enough points in transition, and via its generally excellent offensive talent. The only way Syracuse can match that is to get a lot of second chance points and a lot of fast break points. The rebounding battle is what it is. Michigan holds its own on the defensive glass, but Syracuse will get second chance points as they do against any non-elite rebounding team. But Michigan takes such good care of the ball that they can choke off Syracuse’s fast break opportunities and thus choke off Syracuse’s offense.
    Going back to that Texas game, Syracuse won by having its best offensive game of the season. Ford and Texas’s 3 point shooting did plenty of damage against the zone. This year’s team doesn’t have the offensive fire power to overcome a mediocre defensive outing. But I will say that there is a world of difference between Triche and MCW at the top of the zone versus McNamara and Duany. That was a very good defensive team, this is an outstanding defensive team.
    The game feels like a toss-up, but whoever wins is likely to do so by double digits, if that makes any sense.