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Syracuse’s defense finally shows up in stifling performance against Florida State

Syracuse center Jesse Edwards (14) blocks a shot against Florida State.
Cuse.com
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Syracuse center Jesse Edwards (14) blocks a shot against Florida State.

Syracuse men’s basketball’s defense had been the obvious weakness of the team through its first seven games. WAER’s Francesco Simone explains how that changed in a big way on Saturday against Florida State.

It’s hard to win in Tallahassee. Really hard. Leonard Hamilton’s Florida State Seminoles had won 25 straight conference games at the Donald L. Tucker Center. FSU was trying to tie Duke’s ACC record for most consecutive home conference victories, but Syracuse had other ideas.

The Orange used a second half offensive outburst to erase an eight-point halftime deficit that came as a result of abysmal shooting. SU scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes of play. However, Syracuse was still in the game for one reason: their defense.

That defense came into this game having allowed over 80 points in four of its last five games. SU had also given up 100 points twice in seven games. The last time that happened in an entire season was the 2008-09 campaign. So, it’s safe to say that Head Coach Jim Boeheim’s patented zone had not been working.

Boy, did that change against the Seminoles. SU once again used its new hybrid of a 1-1-3 that looks a 1-3-1 to complement the traditional 2-3 zone. The Orange have never used this defense under Coach Boeheim. “He was writing it up on a paper napkin the other day,” Syracuse guard Buddy Boeheim said about his father’s new wrinkle.

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim is frustrated by a call during his team’s game against Florida State.
Cuse.com
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Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim is frustrated by a call during his team’s game against Florida State.

However it came to be, it certainly worked. The Orange held the Seminoles to 32 points in the first half. That kept the Orange within striking distance. FSU added just 28 tallies in the second half, allowing the Orange to erase their deficit when the offense finally found its footing.

The numbers speak for themselves. FSU was held to just 22/63 (34.9%) on field goals and 4/30 (13.3%) from beyond the arc. The Seminoles scored just 60 points, their second lowest output of the season. That is tied for the lowest total that the Orange have allowed so far. Syracuse also held Drexel to 60 in its second game of the season.

It goes beyond the numbers. SU passed the eye test as well. Before this game, the zone rotation had been, to put it mildly, awful. Forwards Jimmy Boeheim, Cole Swider, and Benny Williams just did not have a good understanding of where they needed to be and when. Their lack of rotation put center Jesse Edwards in a terrible spot, constantly having to choose between allowing an open 15-foot jumper or an uncontested ally-oop behind him. Today, that was visibly better. The wings were more active on their rotations, covering their end of the bargain in a defense that takes all five men working in unison to be successful. Unlike most of the first seven games, the baseline was protected by those three forwards.

Syracuse forwards Cole Swider (left) and Jimmy Boeheim (right) along with center Jesse Edwards (middle, orange) defend a drive to the basket by Florida State guard Caleb Mills (white).
Florida State Athletics
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Syracuse forwards Cole Swider (left) and Jimmy Boeheim (right) along with center Jesse Edwards (middle, orange) defend a drive to the basket by Florida State guard Caleb Mills (white).

Outside shooting is always a weakness that can be exploited against the 2-3 zone. Coach Boeheim denounced his team’s defending of it following the Indiana game on Tuesday for allowing too many open looks. On Saturday, however, he praised it, saying, “We were there. We were getting them a little off-balance from the three.” Here’s that word again: active. SU was active when it closed out on FSU shooters, making a team that came in shooting a more than respectable 38% from three look really bad.

The zone(s) take time to learn. That happens every year. It is not often that it looks as bad as it did to start this season, but, if this game was any indication, maybe it’s coming around this year like it always seems to do. Only time will tell if it actually will.

That defense, and the SU as a whole, faces its biggest challenge thus far when Syracuse travels to Madison Square Garden to take on No. 6 Villanova on Tuesday. Jim Boeheim coaching in the Garden against a Big East powerhouse. It just feels right. WAER will have full coverage of that one starting with GZA Countdown to Tipoff at 9 p.m. with game time set for 9:30.