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Monday, January 13
Looking inside the Syracuse 2-3 zone

By Fran Fraschilla
Special to ESPN.com

The zone defense has been around since shortly after Dr. James Naismith nailed the peach basket to the balcony in the gymnasium at the Springfield YMCA. Michigan State won the 1979 national championship playing, almost exclusively, the 2-3 zone (and having Magic Johnson on the back line didn't hurt, either).

In today's college basketball game, most coaches will use the zone as a "change up" to their man-to-man defense. But under the direction of John Chaney and Jim Boeheim, Temple and Syracuse use zone as their primary defense and have played it as well as anyone in the country over the last two decades.

Interested in the X's and O's of college basketball, but don't understand the terminology? Read ESPN's Fran Fraschilla's introduction to Hoops 101 on ESPN.com for a crash course in the basics of basketball.

In the case of Syracuse, the 2-3 zone is the defense of choice. And it's been a very good weapon in the Big East and NCAA Tournament for the Orangemen. And has been the case most years, this group of Orangemen include big, rangy guards and quick active wing players who have had the ability to cover a lot of ground in the defense.

Heading into tonight's game against Missouri (ESPN, 7 ET), let's examine why Sryracuse's 2-3 zone has been so effective, specifically which players are responsible for the coverages, and where they'll try to trap the Tigers and other foes this season.

First of all, here are some reasons a zone defense can be effective:
1. The size and quickness of the players can effectively take away the open 3-point shot.
2. Teams spend most of their time working on man-to-man offense.
3. It is easy to know what teams will do against you. There are far more man offenses to prepare for than zone offenses.
4. It keeps good players out of foul trouble.
5. It hides a bad defender.
6. It can be an effective defense to rebound and fast break out of because of the players' positions in the zone.
7. It can change the tempo and momentum in the game.

Here is the basic alignment of the Syracuse 2-3 zone. This year, the point (1) is handled by 6-foot-2 freshman Gerry McNamara; 6-6 Kueth Duany plays the off guard (2); 6-8 freshman Carmelo Anthony is on the wing (3); another 6-8 forward, Hakim Warrick, plays power forward (4) and 7-footer Craig Forth mans the middle (5).

McNamara and Duany are positioned together so they touch hands to keep the ball out of the high post. Anthony and Warrick, meanwhile, are positioned about two feet outside of the lane just off the first marker, while Forth plays the middle of the lane.

Now watch how the Syracuse 2-3 zone moves as the offense moves the ball.

On the initial pass from top to the wing:

  • Warrick (X4) comes up a little, until the ball side guard Duany (X2) can get to the wing, and "bumps" back to his original position.
  • The opposite guard McNamara (X1) slides over to guard the elbow area and Forth (X5) fills outside the low post.

    On the pass to the corner, Warrick (X4) aggressively takes the ball, Forth (X5) fronts the low post area and Duany (X2) on the ball side drops into a "help" position to discourage the pass to the high post.

    On passes back out to the top, the players return to their original spots. It is important for the guards recover quickly because good teams will try to attack the top of the zone with dribble penetration.

    When the ball is reversed to the opposite wing, Anthony (X3) must "bump" out until McNamara (X1) recovers to the wing. If you notice, the guards are playing the three offensive players on the perimeter with help from the forwards.

    The area of concern for the zone on ball reversal is the area behind the forward call the "short corner". It is open temporarily because Anthony (X3) must "bump".

    Syracuse will trap this pass with the forward (X3) and the center (X5) as the opposite forward (X4) protects the basket. If you don't handle this trap, you are in for a long night.

    When a team is forced to dribble to the "short corner", this also becomes a trapping area for the defense. Remember, Syracuse is trying to make the pass out of the trap against two of its taller defenders.

    TRAPPING THE CORNER: There are times when the ball is passed to the deep corner that the trap becomes a "guard-forward" trap. The opposite guard (X2) plays the passing lane back out to the wing, the center (X5) fronts the low post and the opposite forward (X4) looks for the cross court pass that has "helium" in it.

    TRAPPING THE GUARD: Once in a while, as a surprise after a time out or a substitution, look for Syracuse's guards (X1 and X2) to run up and trap the ball as it is dribble over the midcourt line. The forwards (X3 and X4) rotate up to play the passing lanes to the wings and the center (X5) will protect the basket.

    This is a safe gambling area and after the ball is passed out of the trap, the defense rotates back to the 2-3 zone.

    We also cover zone offense this week, and how to attack the 2-3 zone defense. Click here to see how it can become a real chess match. Just hope your opponent's King and Queen aren't bigger.

    Q & A with Fran Fraschilla

    Send in your Hoops 101 questions. Fran Fraschilla will answer a few each week as the season continues.

    "What's the difference between a normal zone defense and a match-up zone? I hear announcers talk about how tough match-up zone defenses are, but I can't tell the difference."
    Bo Bo Slob,
    Gulfport, Miss.

    Good question. A normal zone defense is based covering areas of the floor, as you will see in the Syracuse 2-3 zone. In the "match-up" zone, like the one Temple has been known for in the John Chaney era, the defense "shows" a zone look but "matches up" man-to-man to the offensive player closest to their area of the zone. This is particularly effective when a zone offense is stationary. The best way to combat a "match up" zone is make sure your zone offense has a lot of cutting action in it or, more simply, run your man-to-man offense against it.

    "What are your thoughts on trying to steer the ball to the baseline in a man to man defense as opposed to steering the ball to the middle of the court?" James Reilly,
    Mt. View, Calif.

    Most teams force the ball in its man-to-man defense to the sideline first and, then, once on the sideline force it down to the baseline. We like to tell our players to use the sideline and baseline as our "sixth and seventh" defenders. When the ball is allowed to penetrate the middle of the floor in any defense, it gives the offense the chance to use all 50 feet of the width of the court. We can "cut the court in half" by forcing the ball to the outside of the court.

    One more point. Forcing the ball to the baseline is a great place to trap because it is a "no man's land" with little room for the offensive player to operate.

    Fran Fraschilla spent 23 years on the sidelines as a college basketball coach before joining ESPN this season as an broadcast analyst. He guided both Manhattan (1993, 1995) and St. John's (1998) to the NCAA Tournament in his nine seasons as a Division I head coach, leaving New Mexico following the end of the 2001-02 season.

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