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 Thursday night. It’s just going to be which style will prevail.
The final 16 teams always include a number that 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, Jack Ramsay at St. 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 … 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. “
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