Busting Brackets

Syracuse Basketball: Why this is the perfect era for Jim Boeheim’s zone

Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim watches play during the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament against the San Diego State Aztecs on Friday, March 19, 2021, at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind.Ncaa Basketball Ncaa Touranment San Diego State Vs Syracuse
Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim watches play during the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament against the San Diego State Aztecs on Friday, March 19, 2021, at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind.Ncaa Basketball Ncaa Touranment San Diego State Vs Syracuse /

Admittedly, I’m not the biggest fan of Jim Boeheim. While he’s overseen a Syracuse basketball program that’s been embroiled in sanctions and scandal over the past decade, it’s the 76-year-old’s oftentimes antagonistic relationship with the media that I find particularly distasteful.

If success were solely based on the regular season, Orange fans might not have much reason to love Boeheim either, at least lately. While the program earned six straight top-4 seeds from 2009 to 2014, it hasn’t received better than an 8 seed any of the last seven seasons.

As has been well documented, however, Boeheim and Syracuse have consistently exceeded expectations come March. The Orange reached a Final Four as a 10 seed in 2016 and two Sweet 16s as an 11 seed (in 2018 and this season).

Typically, the team’s unique zone defense — and its opponents’ unfamiliarity with it — is cited as the key explanation for Syracuse’s tournament success. While there is likely a lot of veracity to this, the program’s “March formula” has additional ingredients as well.

The Golden Era of the Zone Defense?

Although it’s been covered ad nauseam, it’s worth touching on Syracuse’s zone defense. In many ways, the zone is reflective of Boeheim’s old-school nature and seemingly anathema to modern basketball. That said, the approach has clearly provided his teams a competitive advantage over the years (six top-20 defenses in last 10 seasons).

Syracuse’s zone defense coaxes opponents into a lot of 3-point attempts; year after year, few teams allow more long-range shots. But while 3-point percentage is generally regarded by the analytics community as something defenses have limited to no control over, Syracuse (along with Virginia) has been consistently elite in this regard. Boeheim’s defenses have posted 3-point percentages below 33% in eight of the last ten seasons.

How have they managed this? It’s likely a combination of 1) offenses “forcing” 3-pointers when they can’t get into the teeth of the zone, 2) the rhythm of shooters being thrown off — shots are generated a bit differently versus a zone, and 3) a bit of luck.

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While Boeheim’s scheme has been successful for a long time, one could argue it has never been better suited for an era of college basketball. The 3-point line was extended prior to the 2019-20 season, producing the worst long-range shooting year since the shot was introduced in 1986 (per KenPom).

Worst 3-point shooting seasons:

2019-20: 33.3%

*2020-21: 33.8%

1996-97: 33.9%

The decline in shooting efficiency hasn’t led to teams attempting significantly fewer threes, however. While the sport’s 3-point attempt rate declined from 2018-19’s all-time high of 38.7%, it was still 37.5% last season (tied for 2nd-highest) and is 37.4% (4th-highest) so far this season.

The key takeaway: Since the 3-point line was moved back, teams have been making threes at historically low rates while continuing to take them at historically high rates. This sounds like the perfect combination for a Syracuse zone defense that allows a lot of long-range attempts and already has a track record of churning out low defensive 3-point percentages.

Embracing the Three on Offense

Boeheim deserves credit for sticking with and honing his zone defense, but the Hall of Famer has shown the ability to adapt with the times as well. Prior to 2015-16, Boeheim’s teams only attempted >32% of shots from downtown in 3/19 seasons.

Things changed that year, however, partially driven by the incorporation of two freshmen that loved to let it fly from three in Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon. Syracuse attempted 42.1% of shots from downtown (41st nationally), an approach that provided immediate success in March (made Final 4 as a 10 seed).

Since 2015-16, the Orange have been top 100 in 3-point attempt rate in 4/5 seasons (40.4%, 94th this year). In the team’s Round of 32 matchup against West Virginia, the Mountaineers managed to hit a plethora of threes against the zone (11-26, 42.3%), but Syracuse shot even better (14-31, 45.2%).

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Fewer Fouls = Fewer Bench Minutes

Generally speaking, Jim Boeheim prefers to play his starters heavy minutes. In the last five seasons,  Syracuse has ranked 340th, 349th, 256th, 331st, and 350th in bench minutes (per KenPom). While I’m not aware of strong statistical evidence that suggests relying less on the bench is the “better” approach, there’s an obvious appeal to having one’s five best players on the floor as much as possible — particularly in win-or-go-home NCAA Tournament games.

Of course, fatigue and foul trouble can make this challenging to execute. While Syracuse’s offense has varied in pace year-to-year, its zone defenses have generally forced opposing offenses to slow the game down. In both 2014 and 2016, no defense forced opponents to play at a slower pace than the Orange. Has this enabled Syracuse’s starters to catch their breaths on this end of the floor? Or rather, does it actually require a lot of energy to “force” opponents to slow down their offenses? The answer is unclear.

Boeheim’s defenses have managed to limit fouls as well (24th-lowest FT rate this season), something that’s helped him implement his “low bench” strategy. Additionally, the Orange has consistently ranked high in KenPom 2-foul participation rate (10th this season). This means that relative to other coaches, Boeheim doesn’t often bench starters who pick up their second foul in the 1st half. While it’s not clear that this approach is “better” either, it seems fair to say that some coaches are too conservative in this regard.

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Syracuse and Jim Boeheim aren’t beloved by the entire college basketball community, but the impressive success — particularly in the NCAA Tournament — is undeniable. While Boeheim has held tight to his zone defense — one that is arguably well suited for today’s game — he’s also shown the ability to adapt. Overall, the Hall of Famer has honed a distinct brand of basketball that stands out from the rest of the sport. The results speak for themselves.

(Credit to KenPom for statistics)