There was a time when Jim Boeheim's teams often played man-to-man, as odd as it may seem. That patented 2-3 zone, of course, was always in the mix. But Syracuse would choose schemes accordingly.
Then Boeheim had an epiphany.
"The problem with man is you have to spend an hour every day on man defense," Boeheim said. "It dawned on me after about 27 or 28 years, finally — it takes me a while — that if we played zone all the time and didn't waste time playing man to man and put some wrinkles in the zone, because we'd have more time to practice it, that our defense would be better."
In the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 on Thursday at Verizon Center, the benefits of such a system were on full display. As fourth-seeded Syracuse claimed a spot in the Elite Eight with a 61-50 upset over top-seeded Indiana, the undersized Hoosiers were suffocated by the Orange's length and athleticism.
"It's tough," Syracuse forward James Southerland said. "One thing they don't see is how long we are until they approach us."
Cody Zeller, Indiana's marquee 7-foot center, was particularly afflicted as he struggled to find space inside. Seemingly every time he touched the ball, the defense collapsed on the paint.
When all was said and done, Zeller finished with 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting. While guard Victor Oladipo was 5 of 6 from the field en route to his 16 points, it wasn't enough.
Not when Syracuse forces 17 turnovers, and not when Indiana has a 3-for-15 night from beyond the arc.
As Indiana coach Tom Crean said, "We haven't seen a zone like that."
Syracuse, which is bolting for the ACC next season, will face third-seeded Marquette in an all-Big East regional final Saturday after the Golden Eagles knocked out Miami with a 71-61 triumph in the first half of Thursday's double-header.
The ousted Hoosiers converted just one shot from the field in the first 10 minutes against the Orange. It wasn't until a Zeller tip-in with 5:59 remaining that Indiana even cracked double digits. And soon after, a fadeaway 3-pointer from Michael Carter-Williams (a game-high 24 points) was followed by a C.J. Fair layup to put Syracuse in front 29-11.
"We just didn't take care of the ball like we should have," Oladipo said. "In the first half, we got a little too anxious, catching the ball, moving out the ball, not having the ball secure in our hands, and our shots weren't falling at the same time."
The Hoosiers did enjoy a 9-2 spurt and cut the deficit to 34-22 by halftime. After the break, Indiana came out with renewed energy, firing up the cream-and-crimson-clad faithful by forcing a Syracuse timeout with five straight points.
But Indiana would get no closer than six, with the Orange providing an answer every time Indiana neared striking distance. When Carter-Williams hit a trey with 9:11 remaining, the margin extended to 51-37.
The way Syracuse's defense was playing this night, those 51 points turned out to be all the Orange would need.
"Not too many teams are used to our zone," said Syracuse guard Brandon Triche, who finished with 14 points. "We're very long, we're very active. And when we're like we were today, I think defensively we're hard to score on."
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