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John Day column: Boeheim masters the zone defense

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WASHINGTON — Jim Boeheim is known to be a stubborn man, adhering strictly to the principles that have helped him win 919 games during his highly successful 37-year tenure at Syracuse.

He doesn’t change things for change sake, nor does he react positively to those who question his strategy, tactics or coaching acumen.

So when critics question why he plays so much zone defense when the game is now quicker and more physical than ever, Boeheim just shrugs his shoulders and says, “because we believe in it.’’

“I learned a long time ago that you stick with what you do best,’’ he said Friday. “Over the years, we’ve played a lot of man-to-man with zone sprinkled in. Once our zone got better, we still played some man. But it came to a point where our zone became so much better, and I didn’t want to waste time in practice on the man-to-man. So we’ve stuck with it.’’

So about four years ago, Boeheim ditched the man-to-man altogether and switched strictly to the 2-3 zone. Even against some of the weaker nonconference opponents against whom he always tried some man-to-man.

“I really made the decision after we lost to LeMoyne (in a 2009 exhibition game),’’ Boeheim said. “My ego isn’t big enough to prevent me from making a decision that will help the team.’’

But this isn’t your mother’s 2-3 zone. Boeheim and his assistants have tweaked it to where it relies on a lot of man-to-man principles, and often is a matchup zone in certain areas.

“You’re always putting in new wrinkles because teams, especially in our conference, have adjusted to how we play the zone,’’ he said. “But it’s not just the zone. It’s the guys we have playing it. We look for players who can adapt to it quickly, and are especially suited to how we focus on certain areas.’’

That is a tough proposition. Most high school players are not accustomed to playing much zone, let alone for an entire game. So their learning curve is much longer.

And, most high profile high school stars are more concerned with offense than defense anyway. College coaches have to teach many of them how to defend with fundamental instruction.

“There is not a lot of defense at the high school or AAU level anymore,’’ Boeheim said. “But here at least the kids try to understand it, and they know it’s a weapon.’’

“I knew Syracuse played mainly zone, but it was so much different than I ever imagined,’’ SU junior forward C.J. Fair said. “It took quite a bit of time to learn the right rotations, where to be in certain situations and just communicating with my teammates.’’

Boeheim and his assistants have always targeted a specific type of athlete, one which will enhance the zone. He goes after bigger guards who can contend with 3-point shots, long-arm wing players who cover a lot of territory, and shot blockers in the middle to take care of everything else.

“I’ve seen zones over the years, but nothing like that,’’ Indiana coach Tom Crean said after his Hoosiers shot just 33 percent from the floor in Thursday’s 61-50 loss to SU. “You can’t simulate it in practice, and we never really figured out how and where to attack it.’’

“You, obviously, are looking for great players first,’’ Mike Hopkins, Boeheim’s chief assistant, said. “But you need to find players who suit your system. If you don’t, you’re making a mistake.’’

Although zone defenses have been around for decades, most coaches use them as a last resort. Like if the man-to-man isn’t working.

“If you are a man-to-man team and you’re not executing well, you may try a zone for a few minutes but you really hope that the man improves,’’ Boeheim said. “In our case, we can’t switch to something we haven’t practiced.’’

Boeheim has actually taught his zone principles to dozens of coaches throughout the years. “Some of them grasp it, some don’t,’’ he said.

Boeheim’s legacy at SU and in college basketball is firmly established. He has won consistently over four decades, sent dozens of players to the NBA and kept the Orange on the national map year in and year out.

His tombstone will probably read: “Great coach. Teacher. Family man.’’

There probably should be a clause saying, “Master of the Zone.’’

John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times. He can be reached at jday@wdt.net

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