SU expects Pitt zone defense
PHILADELPHIA – Syracuse men’s basketball head coach Jim Boeheim sat and pondered a reporter’s question.
Would he expect to see a zone defense from Pittsburgh and if so, how would the Orange better attack it?
In the two teams’ first meeting – a 76-69 SU loss on Jan. 29 – Pitt changed from a man to zone defense toward the end of the first half. The 2-3 zone, which SU employs itself, disrupted the Orange offense, holding it to 35.7 percent shooting in the second half. That after the Orange shot 52 percent in the first half.
So, how will the Orange better attack the zone should the Panthers turn to it?
‘We’ll see what happens Monday night,’ Boeheim replied after a long pause.
Syracuse says it’s ready for the zone considering it practices against it every day. SU has every reason to expect it’s coming when Pittsburgh comes to the Carrier Dome tonight at 7.
‘You’ve just got to play aggressive and with high efficiency,’ assistant coach Mike Hopkins said.
That’s exactly what the Orange (22-3, 9-2 Big East) didn’t do in the first meeting with the Panthers. During an aggressive first half in which guard Gerry McNamara constantly broke down Pitt’s man-to-man defense, Pitt (17-4, 7-3) went to the zone. It was mostly an effort to contain McNamara.
It worked perfectly. McNamara lost his ability to penetrate and none of SU’s other players could hit open shots. No player other than McNamara and Warrick scored more than four points and even the two stars struggled until the game was already out of reach.
So how can Syracuse beat a defense that the Orange regularly uses itself?
The answer may partially lie in SU’s win over Villanova on Saturday. While Warrick scored a career-high 32 points, it was far from a one-man show. SU showed its best ball movement of the season, as McNamara, Billy Edelin and Josh Pace regularly got into the lane, causing headaches for the Wildcats.
‘The balance we had (against Villanova) is the type of game we should always have,’ McNamara said. ‘It should be different guys all the time. That’s going to be the key down the stretch.’
And if SU can’t figure out Pitt’s zone defense, more and more SU opponents may employ the zone down the stretch.
McNamara said SU needs a fourth, fifth and sixth scorer to step up behind himself, Warrick and Pace. The Syracuse player who continually gets open looks, but has been consistently unable to knock them down, is Louie McCroskey.
He missed two open 3-pointers against the Panthers and struggled again on Saturday, this time coming off the bench. With the ability of McNamara, Edelin and Pace to penetrate a zone, and Warrick dominating the middle, McCroskey often becomes the forgotten man. If teams continue to leave him open, the sophomore needs to hit more shots.
But even if McCroskey’s play doesn’t improve, the Orange must figure another way to beat the defense that cost SU a 17-point lead in the last meeting against Pittsburgh.
‘Hopefully it’s a little different this time,’ McNamara said. ‘You have to attack the zone. You can’t pass up shots. You have to go right after it. That’s the best way to beat zone – to just attack it.’
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