Syracuse-Duke Sweet 16 matchup figures to be a battle of the zones | Zagsblog
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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Friday / July 19.
  • Syracuse-Duke Sweet 16 matchup figures to be a battle of the zones

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    By ADAM ZAGORIA

    The Sweet 16 matchup between Duke and Syracuse won’t just feature a matchup between two of the Naismith Hall of Fame coaches left in the NCAA Tournament.

    It will be a showdown between zone defenses, too.

    During their time leading Team USA, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski learned about the zone from Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and former Boeheim assistant and current Washington head coach Mike Hopkins. Now he’s confident enough in it that the Blue Devils have gone to the zone as their go-to defensive scheme.

    “I was with Jim for 11 years with USA Basketball, Mike helped for about two-thirds of that time,” Coach K said Tuesday ahead of Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup in Omaha, Neb.

    Coach K also listed Tom Thibodeau, Mike D’Antoni, Nate McMillan and Monty Williams as guys who taught him about the zone.

    “It was very good and we learned a lot about the zone,” Coach K said. “We feel very comfortable in teaching it and the zone will take on the physical attributes of the people playing it. That’s why it’s not an Xs-and-Os, just salt and pepper shakers and all that stuff.”

    Duke is loaded with one-and-done studs like Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr. and Trevon Duval, and Coach K said it’s been challenging to teach freshmen the zone knowing they’ll only be on campus for a short time.

    “We don’t have as much time to teach everything,” he said. “If you don’t have the older players, a lot of times they teach the younger players while you’re teaching them. It evolves like that. Virginia is a great example of that. Villanova is another. Very well-coached teams. Villanova with their zone press, containment 2-2-1 and some variations they have. In the last few years, we haven’t been able to do that. So you try to look at other things that you might be able to do. This is something we’ve done very well. Our kids are playing well, hopefully we can keep it going.”

    In their lone meeting this season, Duke beat Syracuse, 60-44, in Durham, N.C.. But Coach K says Syracuse, which held TCU to 52 points and Michigan State to 53, has only gotten better with its own zone.

    “They’ve changed and we’ve changed,” Coach K said. “They’re better and so are we. We’re better in our zone than we were that day and they were good in their zone that day too, but their offense wasn’t that good. The two things for them where they’ve really gotten better is (Marek) Dolezaj has become a force. He’s a double-figure scorer in the last three weeks. He was a good player, but he’s a very good player now. (Oshae) Brissett has been their best player the past few games, he’s averaging 18 (points) and 10 (rebounds). They can really protect the basket when they have those four guys who are all very big and mobile and accustomed to playing with one another. On offense and defense, they become a tough out, especially when they can keep the number of possessions lower than a fast paced game.”

    Grayson Allen, Duke’s senior guard, knows that Syracuse is a different team from the one Duke beat in February. And of course, in addition to paying the zone itself, Duke must deal with the Boeheim zone.

    “We’re even a different team from when we played them that game,” Allen said. “We can’t think it’s going to be like that game, we have to know that it’s different. Their guys are better now, they’re playing with more confidence. Obviously going up against their zone defense is always a challenging thing.”

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.

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