Syracuse Basketball: Many fans are fed up with SU playing a zone defense

Syracuse basketball (Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images)
Syracuse basketball (Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images) /

A lot of Syracuse basketball fans, these days, are angry, disappointed and frustrated with the state of the Orange program.

I get it. The ‘Cuse, at 16-17 in the 2021-22 stanza, endured its first losing season EVER under head coach Jim Boeheim, who is presently in his 47th year at the helm on the Hill.

What’s more, as Syracuse basketball (16-13, 9-9 in the ACC) prepares to host Georgia Tech on Tuesday night, the Orange is nowhere near the bubble for this spring’s Big Dance.

By extension, the ‘Cuse will likely have to string together numerous victories at the end of the 2022-23 regular season and in the upcoming ACC Tournament to warrant consideration for a berth in the NIT.

So, understandably, some Orange fans want to see Boeheim retire. That’s fair. And as I interact with fans on social media, my sense is that more and more of them are ready for the team to ditch the zone in favor of a man-to-man defense.

Many Syracuse basketball fans say it’s time for the Orange to drop the zone.

Okay, let’s provide a little context here. Heading into its Atlantic Coast Conference encounter with the Yellow Jackets, to date in 2022-23, the ‘Cuse is averaging 74.1 points per game while allowing 72.3 points, for a differential of plus-1.8 points per contest. That’s not good at all.

At this juncture, opponents are connecting on 42.6 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from beyond the arc against the Orange.

In 2021-22, when we all can agree that the Syracuse basketball defense was among its worst in program history, the Orange averaged 77.4 points per contest while giving up 75.1 points, for a differential of plus-2.3 points.

This is also sub-par. Last season, the ‘Cuse allowed teams to shoot 42.6 percent from the field and 33.0 percent from 3-point land.

If you look at the Orange’s points scored and points allowed on a historical basis under Boeheim, there have been other campaigns where the ‘Cuse gave up a similar amount of points per game, but oftentimes, Syracuse basketball was simultaneously scoring more on offense.

Of course, in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 stanzas, the Orange allowed fewer than 60 points per encounter in both of those terms. The squad went 30-10 and 28-6, respectively, in 2012-13 and 2013-14.

I can live with Syracuse basketball not having a defense like it did in those two particular seasons, but what’s gone on lately with this zone is really aggravating.

Now, in all fairness, the Orange didn’t have an overly athletic roster in 2021-22, and the current roster includes six freshmen and eight underclassmen.

But even with so many young guys in 2022-23, and with a more athletic line-up than in 2021-22, one would hope that at this point in the present term, the defense would be improving, not regressing.

Yet in its three most recent games, all blowout losses, Syracuse basketball fell by 22 points, 18 points and 17 points to Duke, Clemson and Pittsburgh, respectively.

I get that the affairs with the Tigers and the Panthers were on the road, but the ‘Cuse allowed a combined 190 points in those two games. That is unacceptable.

The Orange’s most recent loss, at the Panthers this past Saturday, exemplified to a tee an ongoing issue for the ‘Cuse. More often than not, Syracuse basketball struggles to hold its own on the glass, and the zone can certainly be a big reason why.

So versus Pitt, the Orange actually shot higher percentages from the field and from downtown than the Panthers. But Pittsburgh cleaned up on the offensive boards, and that gave it lots of second opportunities to score, whether in the interior or on the perimeter.

We live in an era in Division I men’s basketball (and in the pros) where teams have lots of players who can shoot well from beyond the arc, and if the zone struggles to effectively defend the perimeter, and contain the glass, that results in blowout defeats.

So, yeah, a lot of Syracuse basketball fans want the team to do away with the zone defense. For me, I’m on the fence. In the past, the zone has been a huge weapon in March Madness, because opponents that don’t often play against zone defenses in their respective regular seasons can have a tough time preparing for it in the NCAA Tournament.

Then again, Syracuse basketball isn’t winning enough games in its own regular seasons to get into the Big Dance.

Boeheim recently made a comment that Virginia, for example, got smoked by Boston College, yet “nobody asked (UVA head coach) Tony Bennett to play zone, because that’s their defense.”

I understand what Boeheim is saying here, but Virginia is having a better 2022-23 stanza than the Orange, and the Cavaliers have been a more successful program than Syracuse basketball in recent years, including winning the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

Of course, lots of ‘Cuse fans are hoping that when Boeheim does retire, his successor will play man-to-man defense. But if his replacement is one of the current assistant coaches, would Syracuse basketball keep utilizing the zone?

I don’t have the answer. But I’ll be curious to see how this all pans out.

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