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April 3, 2013
U-M working to crack the code of the Syracuse 2-3 zone
Florida Gulf Coast's "Dunk City" alley-oops and Michigan point guard Trey Burke's dynamic 30-footer at then end of the Kansas game will certainly be featured heavily in this year's rendition of "One Shining Moment," but Syracuse's 2-3 zone that is the talk of the college basketball world, at the moment.
The Orange, using the scheme exclusively all season, rank 21st nationally in scoring defense, surrendering just 58.6 points per game. And it has been even more effective since the NCAA Tournament began.
In its four wins in the tournament, Syracuse has not allowed an opponent to score more than 60 points. Even Big East rival Marquette - which should be used to the scheme by now - struggled to crack the code, mustering just 39 points in an Elite Eight loss to 'Cuse.
The four opponents dispatched by the Orange thus far - Montana (81-34), Cal (66-60), Indiana (61-50) and Marquette (55-39) - have averaged just 45.8 points per game.
The 2-3 zone has inspired t-shirt slogans - "We Zone You - and countless breakdowns online that try to explain what's going on.
Now, it's the Wolverines' turn to try and break through the zone. They haven't seen a 2-3 zone much this year, besides a few sets in a nonconference game against Eastern Michigan.
And Michigan's biggest challenge so far has simply been simulating it in practice. Michigan coach John Beilein has lauded the he practice squad's ability to give the Wolverines good looks all year, but the Orange defense may be a whole new beast.
"Obviously the way Syracuse runs it is so effective," freshman guard Nik Stauskas said. "They have a lot of guys who have length and long arms. We have been doing our best to simulate that in practice and run special plays. In practice, guys are trying to be active - that's pretty much all we can simulate.
Stauskas and the other U-M outside shooters will be integral to the Wolverines' success against the defense.
The freshman sharpshooter went 6-of-6 from beyond the arc in Sunday's Elite Eight win over Florida, finding a groove from the corner and sticking with it.
That shot may not be available as openly against the 2-3 zone - but Stauskas is confident he can find others.
"There is not someone specifically guarding you all the time, so it gives you the option to roam around and kind of pick your spots," Stauskas said. "We have a couple special plays that are good against the zone, and we have been working on those to try and get them down.
"I get the majority of my shots from the corner, just because of our offense and how it works, but that is not really my favorite spot. I like shooting from the top of the key, the wing. They're all my favorite spots - any open look is good for me. On Sunday, I got the majority of looks from that corner, but anything works for me."
For Burke, who will be calling the shots, the key to Michigan's half-court offense comes down to patience.
"Playing smart, taking open shots and moving the ball really well," he said. "We have to make them play and not allow them to be stagnant. We have to move it and try to get the ball in the middle and attack the zone."
Of course, Michigan's transition offense will be important, too.
The Wolverines will have to create opportunities to get out in front of Syracuse's defense by getting defensive stops and pushing the tempo.
"If we can get stops and get out and run, we don't have to worry about anything else," Stauskas said. "If we can scout them out well and lock up, their zone isn't going to be a factor, because we're going to get dunks and layups in transition."