Duke readies to meet Orange's famed 2-3 matchup zone

Jan. 29, 2014 @ 06:44 PM

Everyone knows Syracuse plays a nasty version of the 2-3 zone defense.

The challenge, rarely handled, has always been to find a way to score effectively against it.

That job for the next few days belongs to No. 17 Duke, which heads north to central New York and Carrier Dome to face the No. 2-ranked Orange in a highly anticipated ACC game Saturday (6:30 p.m., ESPN).

Heading into Wednesday night’s ACC game at Wake Forest, Syracuse (19-0, 6-0) was No. 6 in the nation in scoring defense (57.8 points). Only Virginia (56.0), No.3 in that category nationally, and Clemson (56.1) have allowed fewer points per game among ACC teams.

“They play a zone defense, but it’s not just the zone,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It’s a defense that’s very active that goes for steals and traps in that segment of the court.”

Duke (17-4, 6-2) heads to Syracuse playing well. The Blue Devils have won five consecutive games, including an impressive 80-65 win at No. 18 Pittsburgh Monday night.

Duke made 13 of 25 3-pointers against the Panthers, which makes it sound like they are the type of team that should thrive against a zone defense. But the Blue Devils know they must do more than simply shoot well from behind the 3-point line if they are going to topple the Orange.

“Not just 3 points,” Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. “We have to attack it, too. We can’t just settle around the 3-point arc and just hope shots go in. We have to attack it. But at the same time, we are known for shooting 3-pointers. If we get some open looks we are definitely going to shoot with confidence.”

Duke leads the ACC in 3-pointers made per game (9.2) and has made a league-best 41.4 percent this season.

The Syracuse zone, though, offers a more difficult look than other zones, the Blue Devils said.

The Orange positions their wing players a little farther out from the basket to prevent teams from simply shooting high-percentage 3-pointers over the top of the defense.

“They have tremendous length, especially on the wing,” Duke forward Rodney Hood said.

Said Sulaimon, “They recover really quickly. We just have to move the ball and hit our open shots when they present themselves. We have to take it with confidence.”

The players at the top of the 2-3 zone, freshman guard Tyler Ennis and sophomore guard Trevor Cooney, know to how invade passing lanes. Ennis (2.7 steals per game) and Cooney (2.2) are first and second in the ACC in steals per game.

“We have just got to be strong with the ball, move the ball and make them work on defense,” Hood said.

Amile Jefferson, Duke’s lanky 6-9 forward, will take his passing even more seriously against Syracuse. If he can get the ball in the middle of the zone and find open men, it should lead to easier Duke baskets.

“It’s going to have to be really good,” Jefferson said. “They are a big, long team and the way to beat the zone is to get the ball in the middle. That’s something that we are working on and we are going to have to execute.”

Duke’s ability to play 10 or 11 players in its rotation, something the Blue Devils have been doing throughout their current five-game surge, could help break down Syracuse. Hood said playing aggressive defense could make the Orange fatigued.

“When they have the ball,” Hood said, “pressure them and try to get into their legs and maybe the zone will get a little bit lazier than normal.”

While getting open shots against Syracuse can be difficult, making 3-pointers isn’t, according to the statistics. Opponents have made 34.1 percent of their 3-pointers against the Orange. Among ACC teams, only Maryland (36.6), Boston College (36.7) and Notre Dame (37.1) have allowed teams to shoot better.