Once again, Syracuse basketball finds itself in the middle of a completely unanticipated deep run in the NCAA Tournament. And once again, the Orange are doing it with a flummoxing 2-3 zone, and an offense so slow that you can practically hear the gears grind with every Frank Howard or Tyus Battle dribble from the top of the key.
It is understandable that so many parallels have been drawn between this 2018 edition of the Orange, the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region that has fought its way into the Big Dance's second weekend from a spot in First Four, and the 2016 Syracuse team that ran all the way to the Final Four as a 10-seed. As it has been since 1996, Jim Boeheim's second Final Four run as head coach, the zone has been a constant in the Syracuse program.
Virtually every article written about Syracuse basketball during this NCAA Tournament run has hit the same notes:
The 2-3 zone is great, it is good enough to win Syracuse games virtually by itself, but it is a bore to watch, and the Orange have set offensive basketball back 100 years by subjecting us to this on both ends of the court.
However, those who don't follow the Orange on a game-to-game basis seem to forget that historically, this isn't the style of offense that Jim Boeheim has favored. In fact, it is probably close to opposite of what the Hall of Famer wants to field on an annual basis.
Boeheim's 1980s Syracuse basketball teams, which featured legendary point guards like Pearl Washington and Sherman Douglas, and high-flying forwards like Derrick Coleman and Billy Owens, raced up and down the court. The fast-break alley-oop was far from a rare sight in those earlier days of his tenure.
Even as recently as 2008-09, the team headlined by Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf, Syracuse ranked in the top 30 in Ken Pomeroy's Adjusted Tempo stat. That year's team did not have the length in the 2-3 zone that Boeheim has since made the focal point in recruiting, but was littered with talented scorers at every position.
While the zone is the defining trait of Boeheim's coaching strategy, he was long known as an offensive coach first. The earlier iterations of the 2-3 were best at forcing interceptions at the top of the arc, or turnovers with traps in the corners, leading to fast-break run-outs. Detractors point to the fact that Boeheim's lone national title came with Carmelo Anthony, one of the best scorers in the history of the sport, on the roster, but Syracuse basketball has fielded a top-50 offense per KenPom 11 times since. Three of those teams had top 10 offenses.
So why the recent offenses struggles, and the rash of "unwatchable" Orange basketball? More than a shift to a wildly cynical style of basketball that puts the zone above all else, as was notably suggested in an otherwise fair article by The Ringer's Rodger Sherman, Syracuse has tried, but failed, to field an ideal roster for offensive hoops.
Over the last few seasons, in the wake of the NCAA scandal that cost Syracuse a chance to play in the 2015 post-season as well as a number of scholarships, the Orange have dealt with an incomplete roster for a number of reasons.
Since 2014, a number of Orange players have jumped to the NBA before Boeheim and his staff probably anticipated. Former five-star point guard Tyler Ennis entered the 2013-14 season with high expectations, but few believed he would be a one-and-done for the Orange. After leading Syracuse to a No. 1 ranking for a few weeks in February following a 25-0 start, Ennis jumped to the NBA.
The next year, during which the Orange sacrificed a potential tournament berth with the NCAA sanctions looming, Chris McCullough, a rangy five-star power forward, went down with a season-ending injury. After playing just 16 games for the Orange, he bounced to the league.
Shooting guard Malachi Richardson, yet another five-star recruit for Syracuse, rode his huge 2016 NCAA Tournament to becoming a one-and-done first round pick. The next year, Tyler Lydon left after his sophomore season and was a first-rounder. The only one of these four players that many expected to leave so early was McCullough, and obviously his Syracuse tenure was over even more abruptly than that.
Of late, Syracuse has experienced a higher-than-normal number of transfers as well. Ennis was a member of a highly-touted five-man recruiting class. Only forward Tyler Roberson finished out his career at Syracuse. Wing B.J. Johnson transferred to La Salle after two seasons, where he became a 20-point per game scorer. Guard Ron Patterson did the same, landing at IUPUI, where he was a double-digit scorer. Center Chinoso Obokoh finished his college career at St. Bonaventure.
The following year, the Orange brought in two blue-chip recruits: McCullough and point guard Kaleb Joseph. With Ennis's departure, Joseph was thrust into the starting job right away, and did not adjust well. After spending most of his sophomore year on the bench, he transferred to Creighton. At the very beginning of this academic year, just over a month before the basketball season, rising sophomore forward Taurean Thompson announced a very surprising transfer to Seton Hall. On paper, Thompson was set to enter this season as Syracuse's second-best player behind Battle, and would have helped solve many of the Orange's offensive woes. Another member of the 2015 recruiting class, Moustapha Diagne, never played for Syracuse after dealing with eligibility questions from the NCAA. He has since been cleared to play, and did so as a sophomore for Western Kentucky this season.
In 2016, Syracuse's offense wasn't pretty, but it had some solid jump shooters like Richardson, Michael Gbinije, and Trevor Cooney, who could get hot and drive the offense. That hasn't been the case in 2018. This team also does not have the depth to change pace on teams. In the 2016 Elite Eight win over No. 1 seed Virginia, Syracuse famously implemented a full-court press, which along with an offensive explosion by Richardson, brought the Orange back from a huge deficit. This year's team only has two true guards—Howard and Battle—who play 40 minutes per game. Geno Thorpe joined the team as a graduate transfer from USF before the season, but left the program in December, not content with his role off the bench. Freshman point guard Howard Washington saw his minutes increase after Thorpe's departure, but he went down with a season-ending injury a few weeks later. If one of Frank Howard or Battle has to leave the game, as happened in last weekend's Round of 32 upset of Michigan State when Howard fouled out with six minutes left, walk-on Braedon Bayer comes off the bench, and Battle moves over to point guard.
Because of this lack of guard depth, Syracuse can't effectively press. Toss in the fact that Howard, Battle, centers Paschal Chukwu and Boruama Sidibe, and bench forward Matthew Moyer have all been nursing injuries during the season, as much as he may want to, Boeheim doesn't really have the option to speed the pace up. In an ideal world, this team would be running off of turnovers once again, but that just isn't an option with a team that has seven "healthy" scholarship players.
Next year, the team could bring back its entire roster, depending on whether Battle jumps to the pros. It also adds five-star forward Darius Bazley, the No. 8 player in the country, four-star point guard Jalen Carey, and sharpshooting two-guard Buddy Boeheim, whose name should sound familiar. If that all holds, Syracuse basketball will have a full compliment of players for the first time in years, and should be able to get back to a more aesthetically-pleasing style of basketball.
Until then, Boeheim is going to run out his six or seven guys, the zone is going to suffocate by necessity, Howard, Battle, and Oshae Brissett are going to pound the ball until it deflates and try to beat guys one-on-one, and Syracuse will attempt to grind out wins until it can't anymore. Offensively, it isn't a style that Boeheim wants to run, or the players likely want to play, or even the most die-hard Orange fans want to watch, but there is no other way for Syracuse this March.
And yet, somehow, Syracuse basketball is still alive, and will face off against Duke for a shot at the Elite Eight.