In the five years since John Thompson III arrived on the Hilltop, no team has bedeviled the Hoyas like Syracuse.
Since the start of Thompson’s tenure in 2004-05, only two Big East teams have posted a winning record against the Hoyas: Syracuse (4-2) and Connecticut (4-3). The sting of that Connecticut statistic has been somewhat mitigated by three straight victories over the Huskies. But Syracuse, even in a somewhat down stretch of seasons by its standards, has given the Hoyas fits. And when the rivalry resumes Wednesday night at Verizon Center, the 13th-ranked Hoyas (11-3, 2-2 Big East) will face Jim Boeheim’s strongest Syracuse squad since the Orange won the NCAA tournament in 2003.
“They’re a 60-footer from being undefeated,” said Thompson of No. 8 Syracuse (16-1, 4-0), referring to a buzzer-beater by Cleveland State that produced Syracuse’s lone loss. “It’s always big. As someone who has grown up with Big East basketball and Georgetown basketball, Georgetown vs. Syracuse is special. … They have had success against us. I don’t know why. It is what it is. Hopefully we’ll play well [Wednesday].”
Perhaps the ultimate reason for Syracuse’s success against the Hoyas is its 2-3 zone defense. Most elite teams tend to play a higher percentage of man-to-man defense than zone. And Georgetown’s hybrid Princeton offense was designed to torment man-to-man defenses. In Thompson’s time at Georgetown, the personnel has changed, but the scouting report on how to defend the Hoyas has remained obvious: Better employ a zone unless you want to be backdoored to death.
That stratagem makes even more sense against the Hoyas this season. Not only are the Hoyas more adept at dribble penetration than Thompson’s past teams, Georgetown also is mired in a shooting slump.
Aside from junior forward DaJuan Summers (14.7 points), who is enjoying a career year from beyond the 3-point arc (.449), the team’s other three key perimeter shooters have been absolutely woeful in league play. Through four Big East games, guards Jessie Sapp, Austin Freeman and Chris Wright are shooting a combined 9-for-37 (24.3 percent) from behind the arc.
“That’s nasty,” Sapp said of the slump. “We’ve been shooting badly lately, so people think that their zone is going to mess us up. But I don’t think so. I think that we have different things that we can do within their zone other than relying on just 3-point shooting.”
Georgetown’s zone-busting formula in last weekend’s victory over Providence was simple: Funnel the offense through freshman center Greg Monroe in the high post. Directing a Georgetown comeback victory from within the Friars’ zone, the 6-foot-11, 250-pound freshman finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and five steals.
“He can score. He can pass. He can shoot. He can do whatever you want him to do inside a zone,” Sapp said. “I think in the last game, you got a glimpse. You didn’t even really get a glimpse - you just got a tiny little sneak peek of what he can do to a zone if you get him the ball.”
Fresh off his second consecutive honor as Big East rookie of the week, Monroe was slightly less impressed with himself.
“It’s all about finding holes in the zone and then delivering the ball to the open teammate. Anybody on our team could do it,” Monroe said. “The way [Syracuse] plays zone, they might have a little hole at the high post. But they play it so well. Jim Boeheim teaches it so well that it won’t be like the Providence zone. It will be a lot harder to find holes in it.”