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Syracuse Preview (or: How Will Kansas Attack the Syracuse Zone)

Iona v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Kansas takes on Syracuse in Miami, which gives them both an opportunity to not have to go to Syracuse, but also lets them go against maybe the most famous defense in basketball, Syracuse’s fabled zone.

This year’s zone can be boiled down to a couple of numbers: Cuse opponents are shooting just 37.1 percent on twos this season (which ranks 3rd at the time of this preview) but they are allowing opponents to take 46 percent of their field goal attempts from three. It’s probably not terribly surprising this is the case, given that Syracuse has always tempted teams to take long threes over the top of the zone, but it’s hard to say any three is a bad three for this Kansas team right now. Of course, clean looks might be tougher to come by considering Syracuse’s starting lineup stands 6-5, 6-6, 6-8, 6-9, and 7-2. The Cuse are also the tallest team in the country on average. I imagine they’ll be able to close out and create some tougher looks than the Toledos and South Dakota States of the world. But how specifically can one attack the zone? To the YouTubes! (thanks to the ACC Network for the video).

As you’ll see in the first clip, Maryland does a good job of getting the ball to the soft part of the zone. There is a brief window for a dump in for a dunk, but Bourama Sidibe (#35) does a good job to disrupt that passing lane. Syracuse does a decent job rotating, which eventually results in a steal, but they leave the player who made the original entry pass (#1 Anthony Cowan) wide open for a kick out three.

Next clip is a bit more simple: Maryland gets it into the soft spot of the middle of the zone, and the entry passer does a good job of moving to empty space for a quick kick out three. Note the mini turn and fake to rotate the perimeter defenders.

This next clip shows Maryland attacking the zone a bit more directly. Again they get it into the middle, but watch Cowan (#1) get to the corner as soon as Darryl Morsell (#10) gets the ball in the middle. This drags a defender with him, and Syracuse’s Tyus Battle (#25) is left guarding two guys. This allows Kevin Huerter (#4) to cut inside and have a wide open runner.

In the last clip, we see a hint of some of the challenges Kansas could provide the Syracuse defense. First, Syracuse’s #11, Oshae Brissett, has to come out of his natural area to cozy up to Maryland’s #11, Jared Nickens, who is shooting over 50 percent from three this year. Once Maryland gets the ball into the middle of the zone, Bruno Fernando is able to fill in that space vacated by Paschal Chukwu (#13) and because Brissett is worried about Nickens’ shooting ability, he isn’t able to recover quickly enough, leaving Fernando an open dunk.

Kansas has had a lot of success getting the ball into the middle of the zone in the few possessions they’ve seen it this year, and that should be no different on Saturday against the Cuse. From there, it stands to reason the open threes should follow, and as long as they don’t miss a couple, get frustrated, and try to attack Syracuse at the rim, the points should follow as well.

Players to Watch

Tyus Battle, 6-6 sophomore guard

Battle, a highly rated recruit, is shooting 55 percent on twos and 36.7 percent on threes. He’s had to make quite a few tough shots for Syracuse, and will be a tough guard for whoever draws the assignment.

Frank Howard, 6-5 junior guard

Howard has pretty similar numbers to Devonte Graham thus far, posting a 33.4 assist rate with just an 18 percent turnover rate. He’s shooting just 30.8 percent from three, and unlike Graham doesn’t have the career numbers to suggest he’s due for an uptick (just 28-102 for his career). He has probably been the Orange’s best perimeter defender.

Paschal Chukwu, 7-2 junior center

Chukwu isn’t a big offensive option, attempting just 11 percent of the team’s shots while on the floor, but he currently ranks 2nd nationally in block percentage at an absurd 19.9 percent. It’s worth noting 44.4 percent of his blocked shots this season came in the Cuse’s win over Oakland.

Keys to the Game

  1. 3-point shooting - As I mentioned, Syracuse gives up a lot of threes. They probably won’t be as open as Kansas is used to because of Syracuse’s length, but there should be plenty available. So long as Kansas avoids shooting under 30 percent, the volume should be there to have a successful scoring day.
  2. Sticking to the gameplan - Syracuse wants Kansas to take shots at the rim. Syracuse’s length has the advantage there (even in transition, although this team will be easier to run on than Kentucky). If Kansas can avoid the temptation, they should be fine offensively.
  3. Defensive rebounding - Kansas has done well on the defensive glass so far, allowing opponents to grab just 24.5 percent of their misses. However, this is a different animal. Syracuse grabs 43 percent of their misses, tops in the nation so far this year. While a great day on the glass won’t win the game for Syracuse, holding Syracuse to 35 percent or so will go a long way towards a Kansas victory.

The pick

There are some matchup issues here. Syracuse will probably kill Kansas on the glass (unless Udoka Azubuike has learned how to rebound since Tuesday) and Kansas will probably get psyched out by the length and new arena for a little bit. But I think eventually Kansas will get so many opportunities at open threes that they will start going in, and Kansas will pull away semi late for an 83-66 win.