Syracuse Basketball: Adrian Autry used a lot of zone vs. No. 7 UNC – and it worked

Head coach Adrian Autry relied on a lot of zone against No. 7 North Carolina, and it worked for Syracuse basketball.
Head coach Adrian Autry relied on a lot of zone against No. 7 North Carolina, and it worked for Syracuse basketball. / Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Former legendary Syracuse basketball head coach Jim Boeheim, the Hall of Famer who retired last March, would have been proud. Actually, I’m sure that he is.

Boeheim, who in recent years almost exclusively relied on a zone defense while at the helm of the Orange, passed the torch to ‘Cuse former player and long-time assistant Adrian Autry nearly a year ago, and first-year head coach Autry picked up his biggest win of the 2023-24 season on Tuesday night at the JMA Wireless Dome, as Syracuse basketball knocked off No. 7 North Carolina, 86-79.

In that quadrant-one triumph, a much-needed one for the Orange’s potential post-season resume, Autry utilized a ton of zone defense. Prior to this Atlantic Coast Conference clash, to date in 2023-24, he primarily focused on man-to-man defense while sprinkling in some zone.

But not on Tuesday evening. The zone defense was in full force, and it worked quite well for the ‘Cuse, which by and large kept UNC’s high-octane offense out of rhythm.

Syracuse basketball head coach Adrian Autry dished on the zone versus the Tar Heels.

In his post-game press conference following the Orange’s victory over North Carolina, Autry discussed a variety of topics, including his decision to play a lot of zone.

He said he was proud of players for sticking to the team’s game plan, taking care of the basketball, obviously making shots, having composure, battling with UNC on the boards, and not allowing North Carolina to go on any type of massive run, something that has plagued the ‘Cuse in various setbacks this season.

Against the Tar Heels, sophomore center Peter Carey was unavailable for the second straight game. Junior center Mounir Hima barely played, and redshirt sophomore guard Kyle Cuffe Jr. didn’t play at all.

That means Autry basically rolled with six guys in this league affair – the team’s five starters, plus sophomore wing Quadir Copeland.

Given that significantly limited depth, the Orange head coach said he felt that the zone would be a pivotal tool against UNC. For one, in the zone, ‘Cuse players are often more likely to avoid foul trouble.

The zone would also slow down the tempo of North Carolina’s offense, keep Orange players a bit fresher with their legs, and enable the ‘Cuse to clog the interior.

It worked. In mid-January, in Chapel Hill, N.C., when UNC handed Syracuse basketball its worst-ever ACC loss, North Carolina’s physical front-court dominated the Orange on the glass and in paint points.

Even though, traditionally, a zone defense can make it more challenging for the team employing it to rebound well on defense, that thankfully wasn’t the case for the Orange on Tuesday night.

In the ‘Cuse win, it tied North Carolina, 32-32, in paint points, and Syracuse basketball held its own in the rebounding arena.

As Autry noted, the Orange’s zone did a strong job of preventing the Tar Heels from crushing the ‘Cuse in the paint. Syracuse basketball players were active and instinctive, particularly Copeland, who made several huge steals down the stretch.

To that end, the Orange prevailed in the turnover category, and the team led North Carolina, 10-4, in steals. It’s true that UNC shot well from deep, but to state the obvious, when Syracuse basketball players are making shots inside and on the perimeter, it’s a dangerous unit.

The Orange connected on 63 percent from the field, 47 percent from beyond the arc and 72 percent from the free-throw line in this critical conference conquest, and the ‘Cuse was also plus-nine at the charity stripe.

While Autry used a lot of zone versus the Tar Heels, he also played some man defense, and that combination, to me, kept UNC’s prolific offense a tad off-balanced.

Autry says this was the “best game” that the team has played all year, and I agree with that statement. Syracuse basketball didn’t let North Carolina control the tempo or dominate on the glass.

The zone, meanwhile, made UNC players work a little bit more, the Orange head coach said. It forced the Tar Heels to take more time off the clock while on offense, while shortening the game, so to speak.

The bottom line is that Syracuse basketball players battled, competed and stay composed. Autry added that the ‘Cuse has had some tough losses, whether getting blown out or losing tight contests, such as to Boston College on the road or Clemson on the Hill.

But the Orange’s victory over a top-10 North Carolina team, to Autry, signifies that Syracuse basketball is turning a corner and gelling as a cohesive unit, which is key as the ‘Cuse enters its stretch run in regular-season ACC competition.

The Orange (16-9, 7-7 in the ACC) has a half-dozen games left in the 2023-24 regular season. The next two are on the road, starting with at Georgia Tech on Saturday, and four out of the team’s final six regular-season affairs are away from the Dome.

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