Jim Boeheim’s key to success all these years can be attributed to a rare tool he utilizes: the 2-3 zone defense.
On Monday night before 15,707 fans in the Carrier Dome, the Syracuse head basketball coach won his 800th career game, joining the company of legends Jim Calhoun, Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Phelan, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, and Eddie Sutton. Boeheim’s Orange defeated in-state foe Albany, 75-43 in the 2K Sports Classic Benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer in the season opener for both teams.
“I appreciate you all staying up so late. It’s way past my bed time,” Boeheim said as he addressed the crowd following the game. “Thank you fans for making this the best place in the country to play basketball. ”
Five players reached double digits for the Orange, led by center Arinze Onuaku with 14 points. Wes Johnson, a transfer from Iowa State, posted a compete line with 12 points, eight rebounds, six steals and four assists in 31 minutes.
Despite battling the affects of the flu, Will Harris led the Great Danes (0-1) with 14 points. Backcourt mate Tim Ambrose chipped in 12 points and nine boards.
Boeheim is in his 34th year at the helm of the Orange (he grew up in nearby Lyons, N.Y. and played four years for the ‘Cuse), after accepting the head coach job in 1976. Since then he has compiled a record of 800-288, and taken SU to three national championship games, including the 2003 victory led by Carmelo Anthony. A member of the class of 1966, Boeheim is a recipient of the Arents Award (the highest award bestowed upon SU alums) and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“You try not to think about (the 800 wins),” said Boeheim, telling the media about how his phone rang at the end of the game with SU great Derrick Coleman on the other end. “It’s a big milestone for any coach to get, and I’m proud of the players we’ve had.”
The 2-3 zone defense has fears, flaws and a function. The fear of the zone comes from unfamiliarity. The time needed to establish the continuity keeps the team in man-to-man principles throughout practice. Preparing to attack the zone involves specific preparation, basketball IQ and taking what the defense will give you. Albany played tentatively in the first half, throwing many flat passes.
After seeing the Great Danes generate an easy shot by letting the ball get to the baseline, Boeheim called for a trap the next time Albany went down low. Rautins came up with a steal (he ended the night with four thefts) and started a fast break the other way.
The flaw Monday night was complacency by both teams. The Great Danes unveiled a 3-2 zone on their end of the floor and the Orange displayed sloppy passing (the teams combined for 53 turnovers). After building an 8-0 lead by pounding the ball inside, the Orange offense slowed, committing four turnovers its next seven possessions. SU guard Brendan Triche showed some freshman jitters with four turnovers of his own.
“I told him to be aggressive,” said Boeheim when asked about his first-year guard’s two charges, “ I just didn’t expect him to run over five people.”
Albany cut the deficit to 9-7 at 14:06 when guard Louis Barraza drilled a triple from the right wing. Freshly inserted SU guard Scoop Jardine showed off his sleek new physique with a driving layup and a foul. He made the free throw to ignite a 9-0 Orange run.
The Boeheim zone’s function is to disrupt and convert. Albany had a rough time swinging the ball with SU senior shooting guard Andy Rautins denying the reversal, SU’s active play in the zone created tipped passes that led to easy buckets in transition.
“For the first game, the really one key thing was to be active on defense,” Boeheim said, “and I though we did that.”
Senior captain Arinze Onuaku and swingman Kris Joseph both broke loose for crowd-pleasing dunks following Albany turnovers. The Orange scored 19 points off 20 Albany turnovers in the first half. Syracuse, scoring mostly on dunks and post moves, shot 50 percent from the floor for the first 20 minutes.
Onuaku scored a lay-in with 19 seconds left in the half to send the Orange to the locker room with a 38-20 lead. Onuaku led Syracuse with 10 first-half points while Ambrose paced the Great Danes with his own 10 points.
The starting lineup Boeheim put out on the floor was slow to start on both ends of the floor. The energy in the 2-3 zone stepped up with the insertion of backup point guard Scoop Jardine and swingman Kris Joseph.
Johnson started the second half for SU with a tip-dunk, and the rout was on. An 18-4 run highlighted by another alley-oop to Johnson, midway through the second half, ensured Boeheim’s milestone victory.
The Orange return to the Carrier Dome this Wednesday to take on Robert Morris. Tip-off is slated for 7:00 p.m. SU continues action in the Coaches vs. Cancer next week in New York, playing California on Nov. 19 at 7:00 p.m. in Madison Square Garden.
“Robert Morris is a really good team. They’ve been to the NCAA Tournament,” Boeheim said. “It’ll be a much more difficult game Wednesday. We just have to get prepared and have a good day tomorrow.”