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COLUMN

Indiana dilemma – how to beat Syracuse zone

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Tipoff: Indiana vs. Syracuse, NCAA tourney, 9:45 p.m. Thursday
RadioO: 1250-AM
TV: CBS

Online: For more on college athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Solution needed entering Sweet 16 showdown

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 - 5:56 am

BLOOMINGTON -- To heck with sleep. Indiana coaches have far more important things on their minds – such as Syracuse and its quantum mechanics of a zone.

How soon did the coaches begin reviewing film for Thursday night's Sweet 16 game in Washington, D.C.? As soon as the media cleared out of the Dayton Arena locker room after Sunday night's win over Temple.

“I am so excited to not be able to sleep for the next three to four nights, devouring film,” associate head coach Tim Buckey said with a smile. “I know everybody else on our staff is excited about that, too.”

Buckley wasn't kidding, by the way. He loves this stuff.

Love might be a key factor in beating the 2-3 matchup zone that has helped 68-year-old Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim win 919 games over 37 years, go to three Final Fours (including the epic 1987 loss to IU in the national title game), win one national championship (2003) and make the basketball Hall of Fame.

Boeheim has said this is one of his best defensive teams, and the numbers back him up. The fourth-seed Orangemen (28-9) rank second nationally in field goal percentage defense (36.3 percent). They hold teams to a school-record 29.1 percent three-point shooting. Twenty-three times opponents have shot less than 40 percent against them.

“They're a great team,” guard Remy Abell said. “They have a great coach.”

The Syracuse zone presents a number of problems. First, it is the Orangemen's only defense, unlike most of the teams IU has faced, which often mix zones with man-to-man defense. They will zone for 40 minutes. They will not change. They will not experiment. They will not resort to “junk.”

Second, Boeheim has fine-tuned his zone for decades. He recruits long, athletic guys well suited to play it. This group is no exception. The starters go 6-9, 6-8, 6-8, 6-6 and 6-4, with the top reserve at 6-10.

The Syracuse zone rotates well, traps in the corners, squeezes off the inside and closes out fast on outside shooters. The Orangemen see, anticipate and deflect. They block 6.1 shots and force 9.0 steals a game. They contest and deny, read and react, frustrate and confuse. Shots that normally are open aren't. They communicate constantly, sometimes cheating to a particular scoring threat, shouting “shooter” so everyone is aware.

With Indiana shooters such as Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and, yes, Victor Oladipo, they will be very aware.

Big East teams are used to this. They've had years to adjust to the zone's intricacies. Louisville shredded Syracuse defense in the second half of the Big East title game, just as much with the pass as with dribble penetration.

Top-seed IU (29-6) has three days to get it right. That's three times what California had last weekend, and it showed. The Bears scored just 60 points, were 4-for-17 from three-point range and committed 20 turnovers -- including on seven straight possessions -- that Syracuse converted into 20 points in its six-point win.

California guard Allen Crabbe was the Pac-12 player of the year with a 19-point scoring average. He took just two shots in the first half and finished 3 for 9 from the field as the Orangemen targeted him nonstop. Crabbe and fellow guard Justin Cobbs combined for 5-for-19 shooting, 2 for 10 from three point range.

So how do you beat the zone? Coaches have asked themselves that question for years. IU coach Tom Crean is 0-2 against Syracuse from his Big East days at Marquette.

You can't just dribble and look at the zone. Well, you can, but it won't end well. You can try launching three-pointers, but that's fool's gold against Syracuse.

You have to cut without the ball, reverse the ball, pass or drive into the middle, and ball fake. Repeat. Ball fake. As quick as Yogi Ferrell is, he will struggle to drive into the lane. Figure forward Cody Zeller will spend time flashing to the high post for passes so he can pass to someone cutting toward the basket along the baseline or drive himself.

If you move, cut and pass well enough, if you're patient and disciplined, gaps in the zone will open. That finally happened for California with its inside players. It must happen for IU, either with Zeller or Christian Watford or both.

And then, as is always the case, the Hoosiers have to make shots, no matter how physical it gets.

Syracuse, of course, has to deal with IU's defense, which has been solid all season. The Orangemen's Achilles' heel is their offense. They shoot just 44.1 percent from the field (that ranks No. 128 nationally) and 33.7 percent from three-point range. Indiana can exploit that. It MUST exploit that.

The Hoosiers must force turnovers -- look for some full-court pressure -- and get transition baskets so they don't have to mess with the zone. The better they play defense, the more they can run, the more effective their offense will be. This isn't new, but it is necessary.

Sleep, at least for this week, is not.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.