SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
And now more on that men's semifinal at the Georgia Dome. It will be Louisville verses Wichita State; Michigan against Syracuse. Or more precisely, Michigan is going to try and solve the Syracuse zone defense. NPR's Mike Pesca explores the 2-3 zone and what makes it - when it works - so devastating.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Any rec league team, any police athletic squad, every group of eight-year-olds who wear the same uniform will on the first or maybe the second day of practice be introduced to the 2-3 zone defense. OK, the coach will say, on defense, you two short guys stay near the foul line, you three bigger kids, you go down near the basket. Everyone put your hands up - you're now playing the 2-3. Jim Boeheim at Syracuse organizes his charges in the same configuration, but this ain't no rec league.
MIKE MONTGOMERY: Credit to Jim Boeheim. That zone was very effective. It's good. It's tough.
PESCA: That's Cal coach Mike Montgomery. He, like all of Syracuse's other opponents, were undone by the 2-3, or rather undone by Boeheim's brand of the 2-3. In the 34 years that Boeheim's been coaching Syracuse, the team's always relied on a lot of zone defense, but in the last seven or eight years, that's all they play. Boeheim never shifts to man to man. There is no other college team that does this, no other team in the pros, no other team in international play of which Boeheim's aware. But going 100 percent zone is like joining the Night's Watch or taking a monastic vow. Boeheim says that scares off other coaches.
JIM BOEHEIM: And zone is complicated. And the reason people don't have good zone is you ask any coach how much time you spend on his man-to-man defense, he's going to tell you 95 percent, 5 percent on our zone. Well, if you spent 5 percent of your time on something you're not going to be very good.
PESCA: But it's not just hard work, dedication, and the occasional coaching wrinkle that makes the zone effective. Just ask a sampling of players that Syracuse has vanquished.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We knew they were long and athletic.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You know, they're long and athletic.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: They were just long and active.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: They're really long and athletic.
PESCA: Those are representatives of every team Syracuse has beaten this tournament. Silly Grizzlies and Bears and Hoosiers and Eagles. You should know by now that taking apart Syracuse's zone is not that simple. Boeheim simply refutes the characterization.
BOEHEIM: And people think we're long. We're not any longer than anybody. That's a myth.
PESCA: A myth? Well, Boeheim does concede he has one especially tall player, guard Michael Carter Williams.
BOEHEIM: I mean, we do have a longer guard - one. Michael is longer. But we usually have two 6-3 guards.
PESCA: Carter Williams is fourth in the country in steals per game. His length and athleticism, and activity, and cunning are a huge part of Syracuse's success. And, it must be said, so is their level of competition. Yes, the zone deserves credit, but Boeheim himself said Montana was overmatched and Marquette couldn't shoot. He noted that Indiana was confused, and credited only Cal with having a shooter who could be dangerous. Asked if the zone is simply the smartest defense to combat the modern NCAA offense, which is to say an offense devoid of dangerous outside shooters, Boeheim countered.
BOEHEIM: There's about 50 coaches in the country that people would say are better coaches than me and none of them play zone. So, it can't be something that people think is smart.
PESCA: But so far this tournament Syracuse hasn't faced an offensive threat like the one posed by their opponent Michigan, and the player of the year, Trey Burke, the most complete offensive weapon in the college game. Of course Michigan, like the rows of the fallen before them, has never seen a defense like the Syracuse zone. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Atlanta.