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March Madness continues Syracuse's defense is a riddle Boeheim's 2-3 zone will challenge Gonzaga

Jim Boeheim keeps the secrets of his 2-3 zone defense under cloak-and-dagger. It's the reason Syracuse opponents are shooting 39.9 percent and averaging just 66.9 points, and it's what Gonzaga coach Mark Few likely will devote much of his time figuring out before this afternoon's NCAA Tournament second-round matchup tips off in HSBC Arena.

It's a 2-3 zone defense, a rudimentary element to Boeheim's inventory that the Hall of Fame coach has sophisticated to overpowering excellence. Still, the Orange's success seems rather mystifying. In this age of athletic slashers and three-point gunners, how can something as straightforward as a 2-3 zone bewilder some of the top teams in the nation?

Maybe it's because the concepts aren't so simple.

"I've never seen a zone like that in person," Gonzaga assistant coach Ray Giacoletti said. "It's so much different that what everybody else plays."

The way Boeheim plays the zone varies from year to year because of personnel and this year the Orange is long and athletic.

"I've never seen a zone where the power forward and center have their butts to the baseline and don't let you throw under them," Giacoletti said. "The power forward and center go all the way up to the free-throw line extended to the three-point line. I've never seen that, ever. Seeing it in person was much more effective than TV or tape. How do you exploit it? Good question."

No one in Gonzaga's league, the West Coast Conference, plays the zone like Syracuse for 40 minutes. The only team that attempted to play the Bulldogs with a zone was Loyola Marymount and it was only for a few possessions. Syracuse hopes Gonzaga's lack of familiarity with the defense plays to its advantage.

"Our defense is a good defense," Boeheim said. "Not a lot of people play zone. So people don't see a lot of zone, so that helps it. When I started out coaching in our league there was about eight teams out of nine that played some zone or quite a bit of zone. Today there's like no teams in our league that hardly play any zone. So I think that it's a weapon that people don't see it [too often]."

Indeed, the truth is that few teams play much zone these days around the country -- in football it's almost the equivalent of the team running the wishbone offense or the option -- and that, too, may be part of the reason it's so difficult to solve the riddle come NCAA Tournament time. Few and his staff had very little time to prepare for it.

"Obviously there aren't many like it," Few said. "Especially with the size and athleticism that they bring. Then the other thing that's very impressive is they run the basketball and get out in transition very much like the great North Carolina team did last year. Being able to somehow slow that thing down is a tall task in 24 hours."

In Friday's West Regional first-round game against Vermont, the 16th-seeded Catamounts made only 23 of 66 shots (34.8 percent). When Vermont seemed to have clean looks, they weren't for long as the Orange defenders tend to make up ground quickly.

"We need to play team basketball and try and outsmart the zone," Gonzaga forward Elias Harris said. "We have to play with a lot of confidence and not be in a hurry or rush anything. It's going to be a helluva fight."

All coaches have a zone in their cache but most use it in moderation as a secondary defense designed to stop penetration and force teams into shooting jump shots. Vermont fell into that trap and made just 5 of 22 three-pointers.

Syracuse's players this season seem to lend themselves flawlessly to the 2-3 because of their length. Even without senior center Arinze Onuaku, who will miss today's game with a right quadriceps injury, Syracuse's frontline is impressive. Junior Wes Johnson and sophomore Kris Joseph are on each side. Both stand 6-foot-7 with 6-9, 240-pound junior Rick Jackson or 7-foot freshman DaShonte Riley in the middle. In the backcourt, senior Andy Rautins and freshman Brandon Triche are both 6-4.

"Our 2-3 zone is like no other 2-3 zone that they'll probably ever see or practice against," Johnson said. "We're very active and very long."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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