Swarming D helps Syracuse return to form
By Rodney McKissic
Western Michigan could not have appeared more confused. The Broncos clanged easy shots, drove into a host of defenders and threw passes into the front seats of First Niagara Center. And that was just minutes into the game.
Western Michigan prepared thoroughly against Syracuse University’s renowned 2-3 zone defense coming into Thursday’s second-round match-up and even spoke of finding a comfort level against the scheme because Mid-American Conference foe Eastern Michigan runs a similar system.
Sounds nice in theory, but the Broncos found the Orange’s defense was much more complex than advertised. The outcome was never in doubt, as Syracuse’s ruthless defense carried the Orange to a 77-53 romp over the Broncos.
“I thought our defense was really good right from the beginning,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We made some shots and that always makes it a little bit easier when the ball goes in the basket. But overall our defense was really good and I thought that was the big key for us.”
Western Michigan, the South Region’s No. 14 seed, shot 34.7 percent from the field and committed 13 turnovers, 11 in the first half as the Orange built a 40-21 advantage.
“We needed this win,” Syracuse sophomore forward Jerami Grant said. “Going forward, we’ll be fine. We just have to come with the same intensity as we did against Western Michigan.”
This, of course, was not the first time Boeheim has mystified an opponent with the zone that Broncos coach Steve Hawkins said is more like a “4-1” than a 2-3 zone. Long arms and hands waving in the air like a kid in the back of class tend to make shooting percentages dip and turnovers rise.
“They make you second guess where you want to throw the ball,” said Western Michigan’s David Brown, who was 2 for 12 overall and 2 for 10 from three-point range. “I feel like we were hesitant where we wanted to throw the ball.”
Syracuse (28-5), the No. 3 seed, will face No. 11 seeded Dayton on Saturday for a spot in the Sweet 16. Trevor Cooney, a sophomore guard who hit a cold spell with his shooting in the last month, led the Orange with 18 points on 5-of-10 shooting overall and 4 of 8 from long distance. Grant had 16 points while freshman point guard Tyler Ennis also finished with 16 points to complement his game-high six assists. Senior C.J. Fair had 14 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
“We came out playing pressure defense and we wasn’t letting them get comfortable,” Fair said. “We were quick on all our defensive rotations and that kind of hurt them.”
The Broncos (23-10) committed just two turnovers in the second half, but by the time they started to figure out the zone, the deficit was too large.
“Our defense was amazing, especially in the first half,” Grant said. “We turned them over so much it gave us extra possessions on offense.”
Syracuse established exactly what it set out to do against the Broncos by emphasizing the need for defense. After a quarterfinal loss to North Carolina State last week in the ACC Tournament, Boeheim stressed putting the teeth back in the Orange’s defense, which helped the team roll off 25 straight to start the season.
The Orange played with a different rhythm defensively in dismantling Western Michigan, the MAC regular season and tournament champion.
“I thought we did a good job defensively on them, taking away their lanes, and we kind of had an idea what they would do,” Ennis said. “They played Eastern Michigan and they have a similar zone to us and we had a little scout on them before and we just focused on defense.”
Thursday was also about returning to another Orange basic – transition offense – as they scored 19 points off turnovers.
It was one game, but an indication that the Orange appear ready to bounce back after losing five of their last seven games before the tournament. Boeheim, true to form, stressed the need not to panic during the slide. Cooney’s shot would eventually start falling, he said, and the team was different without Grant, his pogo stick of a forward who is a force in the back end of the zone.
Syracuse is petrifying when it all comes together as it did Thursday.
“When we play defense like that, our offense follows,” Ennis said. “As long as we keep getting stops, it produces easier baskets.”