Syracuse and the Benefit of Obscurity
How to win outside of the norm
The NCAA tournament is back, and so is the general annoyance with Syracuse that exists throughout the basketball world. There are a lot of reasons for this. One is Jim Boeheim who somehow has the curmudgeonly disposition of a man twice his age, despite there being no chance of anyone being even two-thirds that old. Some of that is the intense tribalism of Syracuse fans, who have been slowly driven to madness the two months leading up to the tournament every year by the dark descent into winter in upstate NY. These fans have NOTHING else going on from January to April, so they are ready for March. Some of it is an unusually large cheerleading section in the media from Syracuse graduates, thanks to their famous journalism school. But BY FAR, the biggest complaining I see is from people who hate THE ZONE.
Here is where I need to confess, I am a Syracuse fan. I have been since being a little child watching Conrad McRae throwing down monster slams on my bureau sized wood TV with the nobs. Back then, Syracuse was a team that used the zone sometimes, with plenty of man to man in there to even things out. Over the years, however, the man-up strategy slowly disappeared and Syracuse settled into a permanent zone defense. The zone defense has a long history in basketball. Rather than having each player chase around an opposing player, the zone allows each player to guard a space on the court. While this was once a popular approach to defense (especially at the lower levels of basketball where shooting from the outside is generally worse) it has faded in the last two decades to near total obscurity. Currently, about 7 teams use it more than 75 percent of the time at the D-1 level of college hoops, (out of over 350) and no one in the pros. A zone would never work in the pros, given the overwhelming shooting ability of professional basketball players. Steph Curry hits threes from three steps behind the line with ease, you simply can’t stretch a zone defense to the logo to stop him. But it can work in college, so why don’t more teams try it?
The zone faces a number of obstacles in its journey back to relevance. The first is that it simply isn’t cool. It doesn’t look good to have 5 guys just standing there, not chasing anyone, not moving around, not contesting every dribble. There is an appeal to the idea of Man vs. Man. Just listen to how tough that sounds. The word “man” is in there twice. That appeals to “men” for some reason. It is definitely viewed across basketball as the cowards way out. “So you can’t guard us straight up? You have to do a zone?”. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. “Granny-style” free throws were informally banned simply because they looked dumb (and reference something un-manly in their name), despite the fact that they were extremely effective. Another issue is that big time prospects want to go to schools that will prepare them for the NBA, and the NBA doesn’t play this defense. Players worry this will affect their draft stock. Finally, most teams simply don’t know how to do it well because they don’t have any experience in it. It takes a lot of practice to master the movements and communication needed to perfectly execute a zone. With so few teams doing it on any level, players are rarely ingrained with the skills that are needed.
This is all good news for Syracuse. For the last 7 years, Syracuse has been a pretty mediocre basketball team in the nation’s best basketball conference. Their best seed since 2014 is 8th in the NCAA tournament (roughly 32 overall in the nation). They haven’t done anything in the ACC conference tournament. Yet when the NCAA tournament starts… look out. They have two sweet 16s and a Final Four compared to just 1 first round exit (and remember, no tourney in 2020). If we want to go back the last 10 years, it’s 2 final fours, 2 sweet 16s and an elite 8. That’s a good record for ANY team. They have produced exactly 2 meaningful NBA players over that time. Michael Carter-Williams and Jerami Grant. Clearly, this isn’t Duke, North Carolina or Kentucky, who routinely see two (or more) of their players drafted into the lottery every season. It’s not talent. So how does it work? When Syracuse gets to the NCAA tournament, they run across something they don’t find most of the year. Unlike in their conference, they get to play players who have never played against a zone defense that year, sometimes ever. A zone defense requires a completely different style of basketball to conquer it than man-to-man defense does. Quick passing, inside and out, is the key. Most teams don’t have plays like that. They have pick and roll. They use cutting and screens. None of these are particularly effective against the zone. But why would you practice plays for a team you don’t expect to see at all for the year? This is compounded when Syracuse wins the first game of the weekend, and their next opponent has 1 day to install a new offense for the game.
Still, teams will not adopt the zone for the reasons noted above. It is simply not cool enough to gain popular acceptance. A lot of sports is this way. For decades, the Steelers were the only team (except the Saints for a bit) who ran a 3-4 (three linemen, four linebackers) defense in football. This meant, the specific type of players who would be good in this defense were only available to them. it’s easy to draft good defensive players when you are the only one interested in taking them. In a related story, their defense was great for 2 decades. In baseball, Billy Beane eschewed players who hit home runs and stole bases and built the A’s on players who got on base all the time, finding bargains other teams missed. Year after years, the A’s locked horns with teams that had 2 or 3 times their budget. In hockey, the New Jersey Devils prided themselves on a defensive minded system at the end of the wide open 80s when scoring was king and goalies spent the game standing up. It was brutal to watch, and as other teams adopted their style, Hockey scoring ground to a halt. But not until the Devils had obtained a few Stanley Cups, despite never having a scoring star. In the NBA, the Warriors became the best team in NBA history (by wins in a season) by embracing outside shooting, an approach that many experienced players and coaches have long thought was “soft”. Now, nearly every team pours in three pointers. In college football, coaches like Steve Spurrier (who won a national championship once and the SEC 6 times) ignored the classic ethos to pound the ball three yards at a time, and sparked a revolution in college football that was one of the main precursors to the modern spread offenses that have popped up everywhere (even in the pros).
Being an outlier can pay massive dividends. There is a tremendous risk to stepping outside of group-think, however. Failure as an outlier can leave you labeled as a moron. Jim Boeheim was halfway through his 45 years at Syracuse before he really went 100 percent to the zone. He had the security to do it. Most coaches don’t have the support to try an unpopular, unpracticed and misunderstood approach to basketball. As long as this remains the case, however, Syracuse will keep benefitting and keep surprising people, and we will get to keep hearing how annoying it is until they decide to move on and the zone finishes it’s fade into obscurity.