BOSTON — One plays zone all the time. The other goes man-to-man from start to finish.
Defense will be the key when top-seeded Syracuse faces fourth-seeded Wisconsin in the East Regional semifinals on Thursday night. It’s just going to be which style will prevail.
The final 16 teams always include a number who have gotten there by playing defense. Wisconsin’s 52.9 points allowed is the lowest of the teams left in the tournament — and the lowest in Division I this season — while Syracuse’s 60.5 is fifth-best.
The difference in the defenses is that Wisconsin wants to stop you by playing a man-to-man defense that has become well known in a conference known for defense. The Badgers want to control the ball and keep the game with a final score more suited to the days of canvas sneakers and short shorts.
Syracuse, on the other hand, wants to pick up the pace through its defense. The Orange, despite playing a 2-3 zone, are third in the nation with 9.4 steals per game and when they do get a turnover they get out and run, averaging 74.5 points per game.
“The great thing about the game of basketball is you can play and approach it in a lot of different ways and be successful. Coaches have done that over the years,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who’s been so successful in his 36 seasons that he is third all-time on the Division I wins list and is in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. “There’s a lot of different ways to coach a team and to play the game, and yet you can still be successful.”
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan has seen a lot of zone defenses over his 28 seasons, the last 11 with the Badgers, and they all have been played by opponents.
“I’ve never played a second of zone defense since I’ve been at Wisconsin,” senior guard Jordan Taylor said. ” I’ve heard Coach say one time he played it one possession and he got scored on I think he said, so he won’t go back to it. I don’t think you’re going to see that tomorrow.”
Ryan grew up in the Philadelphia area and saw a lot of famous zones coached by the likes of Harry Litwack at Temple, Dr. Jack Ramsay at Saint’s Joseph’s and Jack Kraft at Villanova.
“You go to the Palestra and you’re 10 years old, 11, 12 years old, and you’re watching ball movement and body movement,” Ryan said. ” Those guys were so good in how they taught and how they cut and how they used skip passes. So I’m fortunate in that I’ve been around that a lot, ”
This Syracuse zone is different even though starting center Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for the tournament by the school last week.
“They have a system, and when you have a system and it’s been taught for so long and the guys get into that system and it’s passed on by the older players, whether you’re older by a year, by a month, by three years, the athleticism and depth that they have, it really to me doesn’t change how they play or the way they play,” Ryan said. “So we only prepare for who’s there, not for who isn’t. ”
Among who will be there are a core six for Syracuse who have averaged between 15.0 and 16.5 points in the two NCAA games. In the second half of the third-round win over Kansas State, the Orange looked like the team that had spent six weeks at No. 1 and was ranked in the top five all season. They outscored the Wildcats 50-35 in the second half, shooting 66.7 percent from the field while holding Kansas State to 31.3 percent for the game.
“We just go out there and play basketball,” Syracuse senior point guard Scoop Jardine said. “It was tough losing Fab, don’t get me wrong, but we’ve got a lot of guys that work just as hard and with an opportunity can play just as well. For the most part we try to go out there and stay together no matter what happens and who’s out on the court, and I think we’ve done it earlier in the year, and that’s what helped us to this point. Guys had to step up, and I think we’ve done it.”
Wisconsin, which averages 64 points per game and has an offense as balanced as Syracuse’s, has faced several zone defenses this season and the Badgers have five players who have made 24 or more 3-pointers, shooting 36.2 percent from beyond the arc as a team.
“It’s kind of like Northwestern,” Ryan said referring to a Big Ten opponent that plays zone. “Some teams struggle with what they do with their zone. We’ve been pretty fortunate over the years to have hit some shots against it, but it’s like anything else. If you’re not hitting shots, it gets into your head sometimes, then it’s kind of a multiplier effect on, ‘Oh, am I going to make this next one? Am I going to make the next one?’ We’ve watched every game that Syracuse has played, and you’ve just got to work the ball, use good ball and body movement, and when you do get shots, just have to believe they can go in.”
Both schools have struggled lately in this round of the tournament.
Syracuse has lost its last three round of 16 games, the last victory coming in 2003 on the way to the school’s first national championship.
Wisconsin has lost its last two regional semifinals, the last win coming in 2005 when the Badgers lost in the next round.
“We just have to stick to what we do well and play hard,” Taylor said, “and I think the team that comes out and plays the hardest is going to come out on top.”