Few teams are as synonymous with one system or style of play as Syracuse is with the 2-3 zone defense. When you think about Jim Boeheim's program, it's one of the first things that comes to mind, and you've probably heard or read about it since San Diego State drew a matchup with the Orange in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Brian Dutcher knows it won't be an easy puzzle to solve.
“(Boeheim) has played it for 44 years plus and he plays it very well,” Dutcher told reporters Tuesday. “There's nothing he hasn't seen and hopefully we will create some issues for him with our shooting, and if we're not shooting the ball well we can put it in places where we can attack to the basket.”
The word ‘attack’ is an important one. In February the Aztecs said doing that more consistently keyed a five-game streak during which they scored at least 85 points
“The coaches have been telling us the whole time that's our identity, being aggressive no matter what,” guard Jordan Schakel said on February 15. “Score in transition, in the half court, we just have to keep doing that.”
As Schakel mentioned, fast breaks provide opportunities to score before Syracuse can get situated in their zone. Dutcher always wants his team to create points with their defense and generate offense on the run. That's even more crucial in a situation like this.
“Every team is playing their hardest, it's win or go home, so scoring in the half court will be tough I'm assuming,” Schakel said Tuesday. “So we always want to get out in transition put pressure on this team”
Dutcher also pointed to offensive rebounds and second chance opportunities as a way of manufacturing buckets. Rebounding hasn't been a strength of this Syracuse team. On the season they have average a minus-two rebound differential and gave up an edge on the boards in all nine of their losses.
Of course, life gets a lot easier if San Diego State is hitting from long range. The Aztecs have made 37.48 percent of their attempts - the 33rd best mark in the nation. Schakel is a big part of that. He has connected from deep on a 46 percent clip, third highest in college basketball.
Dutcher thinks the key for his team could be Terrell Gomez. The senior guard has shown an ability to knock down shots from well beyond the three-point line. He is also hitting better than 40 percent from three and could pose a problem for Syracuse.
“I told Terrell himself I thought he was wired to have a great March,” Dutcher said. “He needed to pick his swagger up, to be unafraid to take any shot he wanted anytime he wanted. A confident Terrell Gomez is something we have to have in the Syracuse game and his ability to shoot deep with range will hopefully pull the zone a little further than they like to normally play it.”
Doing so could open up lanes for SDSU to penetrate the zone by dribble or pass.
Dutcher has coached against Syracuse and their zone before as an assistant and doesn't expect his team to be stumped when they see it on Friday.
“We will be prepared. Whether we're successful or not is another question, but we will be prepared.”
It’s worth mentioning that from a statistical standpoint only one of these teams has an elite defense - and it's not Syracuse. The Aztecs rank 8th in points allowed per game and allow the seventh lowest shooting percentage in the country.