HOUSTON — Wherever Jim Boeheim goes, his 2-3 zone defense goes with him.
From high school coaching clinics to the United States Olympic basketball team, Syracuse’s head coach of 40 years has taught the scheme throughout his career, no matter how unconventional it might be.
“College coaches aren't going to use the zone because they played man-to-man as a player,” he said. “They coached for somebody who played man-to-man. They got their first job playing man-to-man. They're not going to come in and change their philosophy.”
And neither has Boeheim.
For the second time in four years and the fifth time during his tenure, his Orange are in the Final Four, this time as a No. 10 seed. Once again, his 2-3 zone has brought him here.
But the North Carolina men’s basketball team is no stranger to the zone, having faced Syracuse four times in the past three years.
And when the two teams square off at 8:49 p.m. in Saturday’s national semifinal game, Boeheim knows his team, and his defense, will be in for a challenge.
“North Carolina gets the ball inside as well as any team in the country,” he said. “They always have. They get the ball up the court as well as anybody in the country. You have to be prepared for those things, those two things particularly, when you play North Carolina.”
In UNC’s past three contests against the Orange, it has exploited the heart of the zone, shooting a combined 49 percent from the field.
When the Tar Heels defeated Syracuse 93-83 in Chapel Hill on Jan. 26, 2015, they shot 55 percent from the floor and 56 percent from 3-point range to score the most points the Orange had allowed since 2009.
“I think one thing that we think is important is player movement and against zones you focus so much on passing the ball around that you get stagnant and just stand around the perimeter,” said senior guard Marcus Paige.
“Cutting through the zone and getting guys in different spots so they don’t know exactly what to expect is a big thing for us.”
As are North Carolina’s big men.
Offensive rebounding is a major weakness of the zone defense, and according to KenPom.com, the Tar Heels rank third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage.
Senior forward Brice Johnson possibly poses the biggest problem for the Orange. When UNC visited Syracuse on Jan. 9, he flashed his ability as a shooter and passer, going 7-for-11 from the field for 16 points and tallying a career-high eight assists.
Most of those assists came from him setting up in the middle of the 2-3 zone and dishing the ball to Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks for dunks and layups.
But that wasn’t the case in the Tar Heels’ most recent meeting with the Orange on Feb. 29.
“In the second game they didn’t allow that to happen, they kind of collapsed down in the middle …” Johnson said. “If you did get it there they had people coming from behind trying to steal, they were a lot more aggressive than they were in the first game.”
And while Boeheim implemented a full-court press in his team’s 68-62 comeback win over Virginia in the Elite Eight, he will rely on the zone, what’s allowed him to reach this point, come Saturday.
“We know how good they are,” Boeheim said. “But at this stage you're going to go out and try to play your best no matter what. You don't have any tomorrow if you don't play well.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.