Columnists, Sports

Foul Shots: The 2-3 Zone: The People’s Defense

Go to any recreational center in America, and there’s going to be a pickup basketball game going on. One team will probably just look better than the other. They might have players that look sleek and athletic, while the other team could have a couple people with beer bellies and knee braces. The less gifted team is on defense and one of their players will hold up two fingers in a sort of peace sign, and yell, “2-3! 2-3!” The defense immediately understands and moves accordingly. One of the players on the other team can’t help but smile. He’s seen this before.

Most college teams use the 2-3 from time to time, as a change of pace from the bruising style of man-to-man defense. However, Syracuse University, coached by Jim Boeheim, has run only this type of zone since 1976. Every game, every play, no matter what, the Orange’s opponents have known exactly what they’re going up against. Detractors of the zone say it’s too predictable, and that it can be broken down again and again for easy buckets. Easy buckets lead to easy wins. In a related story, Boeheim’s teams are 938-314 (.749 winning percentage) since he began coaching at Syracuse.

The only thing “predictable” for the Orange since Boeheim’s arrival has been a win total north of 20 per season. Syracuse is successful with the zone, where other teams fail scoring against it because the intimate knowledge each player on the Orange has of it. The players have been running the zone so much in practice that their dreams have probably shifted into zones. Watch a Syracuse game. On defense, the five-man unit moves as a cohesive whole, as if operating on a long pole. They wait for the offense to get overconfident or bored, and then they pounce in a flurry of quick feet and absurdly long extremities.

The current edition of the zone is personified by Syracuse freshman guard Tyler Ennis. Ennis’ masterful debut season has been lost in the hullaballoo and hype surrounding potential top draft picks in Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins and Duke forward Jabari Parker. But it has been quite the year, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Ennis is currently averaging 2.7 steals per game, and has been a fearsome force in the passing lanes. But he’s just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the Orange starting lineup featuring guard Trevor Cooney, forward C.J. Fair, forward Jerami Grant and forward Rakeem Christmas are an average of 6-foot-7. That means a tremendous amount of wingspan and shot-blocking. Even if a player breaks down the top two in the zone (Ennis and Cooney), Grant, Fair or Christmas is waiting down low to contest or dismiss impudent shot attempts.

The mechanics of the 2-3 are pretty simple. Two players (typically smaller, quicker guards) have the responsibility to defend the 3-point arc and occasionally into the key. The remaining three players defend the area of the court near the basket and the corners. These three players are typically larger and less mobile than the guards up top.

The fascinating thing about the 2-3 zone is that when the ball moves on offense, the entire defense moves with it. Say the ball is at the top of the key. The defense is straight up, hands out, waiting for the offense to make their move. The offensive player passes the ball to his right, to a waiting teammate on the right wing. The player that had been guarding the ball before (one of the top guards) hustles over to the new ball handler, to harass him into making a quick pass or force up a contested shot.

This strength in this zone is that is forces a copious amount of low-percentage, contested 3-point shot attempts. Of course, if a team excels at hitting these shots, playing a 2-3 against them wouldn’t be the best idea. But very few teams, even in the National Basketball Association, let alone the NCAA, can do that, hence why Syracuse is so successful year in and year out.

Another strength in this defense is that the zone can serve to hide a defensive player who is not as gifted as his or her teammates. This is why this zone is so popular among recreational league all-stars such as myself. A quick move, and the player I’m covering can drive past me without much trouble. But with the 2-3, I just have an area to be responsible for. All I have to worry about is making sure no one scores right on top of me. If the ball doesn’t rotate around to my side of the court, I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to break too much of a sweat.

I’m not suggesting in any way, shape or form that the 2-3 that my friends and I run is even correct. Sure, we know the basics. But none of us are above 6-foot- 2, and I often end up playing center in the zone, the position that requires superior rebounding and shot-blocking skills, which I’m not really equipped to do. But when a team has height and runs it correctly like Syracuse, it is a joy to watch.

Next time you’re at FitRec, or any gym around where you live, check out what’s happening on the basketball court. If a team is playing a 2-3 zone, close your eyes. Imagine world-class athletes playing defense the exact same way. That’s the appeal of this defense, anyone can do it, and elite players use it as well. It’s the people’s defense. And it’s so much fun.

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