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UConn's George Blaney Explains How To Stop Syracuse, Louisville

Jeff Jacobs

April 6, 2013

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Nobody could be more defensive at the 2013 Final Four than Mark Emmert, but Syracuse and Louisville are going to give it a try.

The way the beleaguered NCAA president went after Dennis Dodd of CBSsports.com and a few others during his annual news conference in Atlanta was an X's and O's lesson in smugness and defiance. But, hey, hasn't smug been used before to describe Jim Boeheim and defiant to describe Rick Pitino?

OK, enough with offensive characterizations … on to the defensive X's and O's.

Syracuse's stifling late-season run with its 2-3 zone has led the Orange, who'll face Michigan on Saturday, to the trappings of Peachtree Street. Louisville's trapping defense has led the Cardinals, who'll face Wichita State, into the zone of Final Four favorite. So who better than a coach from the University of Connecticut — whoops, UConn — to dissect two long-time Big East opponents?

"For years, Jim Boeheim was a really good man-to-man, full-court pressure guy who also played 2-3 zone," said longtime Huskies assistant George Blaney, who started in the Big East in 1994 as Seton Hall coach. "As the zone got better and better, he went more and more to it. He still will press when behind, but the last three-four years [after a stunning 2009 exhibition loss to LeMoyne], he has gone almost exclusively to the 2-3. I don't know if he still does this, but for years he'd work on individual man-to-man defense in practice and then play the zone."

"What makes it work so well is it's different than most people play it. They extend it so much, particularly the two back wing players. They often will be up even past the foul line extended. That's an incredible amount of court to defend and still defend the corner and baseline. They do it so well mostly because of the kind of players he recruits who are very quick and very long. Quite honestly, exceptionally long."

I'm no tailor, but I'd wager if you measured every team in the nation's sleeve length over the past 30 years, Syracuse would finish No. 1. When they get the zone extended, the Orange look like a human chain stretching from Albany to Buffalo.

"It's the old Red Auerbach theory," Blaney said. "Don't measure from the floor to the top of the head, measure to the top of his reach, Kevin McHale, etc. Look at Michael Carter-Williams at the point [a steals demon]. He's 6-6. He must have a 6-9 wing span."

The amount of real estate covered is one matter, but there's a coordinated ballet, too.

"They drill a lot on moving together, and that's what makes a successful defense when everybody moves with the pass," Blaney said. "Not just one or two guys."

Blaney moved off the court and into Boeheim's head.

"This is really important," Blaney said. "Jim has a great demeanor to stay with the zone. There are ways to beat the 2-3. You're going to give up some baskets, especially if the opponent gets hot from the three. But you make a couple threes in a row and he almost welcomes it. He almost wants you to make them early so you'll keep on taking them."

UConn has a theory that if you make seven or more threes, that changes the game. Among 345 Division I teams, Syracuse is tied for second in three-point defense at 28.2 percent [238 of 843]. Opponents make 6.1 threes, but they take a whopping 21.6 attempts a game. The frustration mounts. Witness Indiana and Marquette in the tournament. They combined to shoot a woeful 27.7 percent overall, twos and threes. The Syracuse 2-3 never looked better than in the D.C. Regional.

"Indiana looked like it hadn't played against a zone before," Blaney said. "Our Jim [Calhoun] loved to go out West in the NCAA or play somebody who had only seen you on television. I think Boeheim is like that, too, he likes to play teams with only a few days to get ready for him."

"Marquette is just not a good shooting team. It stops them from doing what they do so well. That's drive and kick. You can drive it against Syracuse, but when you kick it you've got to make your shot."

So how do you beat the 2-3 zone?

"Change sides with the basketball, get the ball in the middle of the zone in the foul line area and behind the zone," Blaney said. "If you do those three things, you will get good shots. You still have to finish the job, of course, make shots against Boeheim's good players."

OK, let's move from frustration to panic.

"Louisville is going to ball-pressure you as much as humanly possible," Blaney said. "They are harder to prepare for than Syracuse, because of the so many things they throw at you."

"Their guards are exceptionally quick. Losing Kevin Ware [with the most famous broken leg in America] is going to hurt them. He is an exceptional defender. Especially with the way Peyton Siva gets in foul trouble, he's an important ingredient."

The Cardinals attack in layers, and many experts agree that you need three strong ballhandlers to hold off the swarm.

"First you got to get the ball in bounds, which is a struggle," Blaney said. "They pressure the ball and try to lead you to a position where they want you to get the ball — if you get it at all — and that's in the corners. Then they come at you with either straight-man pressure or the opposite guard or wing will come and run-and-jump at you, chase you down that way."

"Maybe the best thing they do on full-court pressure is play you from behind. It's an art. It's great if you can teach your teams to make plays from behind, tap the ball, run into a passing lane from behind, all pure hustle plays."

Once you finally get it over the 10-second line, Pitino continues to befuddle with a match-up zone.

"They show you zone. Play you man," Blaney said. "When the ball is in your area, you're playing your guy man-to-man. Once your guy passes the ball, you might stay with him or pass him off to the next teammate."

"There are all different ways to play out of the matchup. They trap sometimes. Sometimes it's straight zone. Sometimes it's zone and man at the end of the shot clock."

Once you've gotten past Siva, Russ Smith and those swarming, switching bees ... hello.

"You've got to contend with Gorgiu Dieng. Great shot blocker. And they're a terrific rebounding team."

The best strategy?

"Having better players is always a good strategy," Blaney said, laughing. "You do have to change sides of the floor with the basketball. You probably have to attack them off the dribble even more than against Syracuse and, of course, make some shots."

"We've always thought running against Louisville was very important. We like to say anybody pressing is an invitation to a layup. You extend the court against pressure."

Louisville has to be the favorite, Blaney said, but he wouldn't be surprised if Syracuse or Michigan came away with the national title. The way the Cardinals turned a six-point halftime deficit into a 15-point win over UConn at the XL Center in January by holding the Huskies to 24 second-half points was frightening.

"They really got into us," Blaney said. "We didn't handle the pressure. They got it going offensively. They are the deepest team in the tournament, when you can bring [Montrezl] Harrell off the bench, that guy's awesome. They're a complete team."

Jacobs picks: Louisville over Wichita State, Michigan over Syracuse. Louisville over Michigan.