Miami — If it's not Jim Boeheim's scowl or that big, orange mascot, it's probably the 2-3 zone that first comes to mind when thinking Syracuse basketball.
And it has been that way for years. For everybody.
Unlike just about any other program in the country — Princeton's back-cutting offense or West Virginia's relentless press also come to mind — the Orange are known, year after year, for finding extreme length and terrific athletes and plugging them into a highly active and effective 2-3 zone defense that creates fits for opposing offenses.
Even though Bill Self's Kansas teams have faced the Syracuse zone just once (in a 2008 loss) and Self has not coached against Boeheim at any of his other stops, the 15th-year KU coach, as an admirer of Boeheim's, has his thoughts about how to attack it when these two square off in the Hoophall Miami Invitational at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at American Airlines Arena.
“We have to come up with some ways to take advantage of our strengths, which would be our perimeter shooting,” said Self, whose team is shooting .452 from 3-point range through the season's first six games. “Still, a big part of attacking the zone is attacking the high post area, as well. We've got to do a good job where we force them to get to shooters, but at the same time, be able to attack inside of it.”
Explained more simply by KU sophomore Mitch Lightfoot: “Basically, be where they're not.”
This particular KU team, which is ranked No. 2 in the country after racing out to a 6-0 start, has not seen much zone defense this season.
Kentucky's John Calipari revealed after KU's win over the Wildcats at the Champions Classic in Chicago that his initial plan against Kansas was to play nothing but zone. But Calipari's assistants talked him out of it and the Wildcats played man-to-man the entire night.
A couple of other 2017-18 foes have thrown zone looks at KU for a few possessions here and there, hoping to slow the game down. But, other than that, the guard-heavy Jayhawks who have displayed hot shooting and exquisite ball movement thus far have faced mostly man-to-man defenses.
“Maybe it's because we shot the ball particularly well,” Self said. “I don't know. Even if we (had) played against zone, it's not the same zone. We'll try to attack this a little differently than what we would most conventional zones.”
In addition to being a slightly more aggressive zone than most teams utilize — with great length at all five spots and a willingness to extend higher all the time — Self said Syracuse's zone rarely stays the same.
Whereas some coaches might call off the zone if an opponent knocks in a couple of outside shots or finds success in the paint, Boeheim simply adjusts.
“This is what they do,” Self said. “They (build) their scouting report off of zone offense, where most people (build) it off of both man and zone.”
Because of that, it's rare that Boeheim or his team encounter something unexpected during games.
“They know where the shooters are, they know how to tweak it if (you're) doing something that's hurting it,” Self said. “It's not going to stay the same shape. Four minutes into the game, it may take a different shape than what it did to start the game.”
Therein lies the rub in trying to combat Syracuse's defense. Sure, the Jayhawks have had the week to prepare for what they'll see in this one. But after playing Tuesday and taking Wednesday off, that left just two practices — one on a travel day — to learn how to operate against Syracuse's signature style.
“There's been times in practice it looks like it's easy,” said Self, drawing on past experiences and preparing for other zones. “You get in a game, the same things you thought were open just don't seem open. That's difficult. No matter how well we perform in practice, it will be a different look once you get in the game.”