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A Begrudging Appreciation of Syracuse Basketball

The Orange are the least aesthetically pleasing team in this year’s NCAA tournament, built to do one thing—and only one thing—incredibly well. That hasn’t stopped them from taking over the biggest party in college hoops.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s called March Madness because it’s the time of year when Syracuse basketball makes everybody mad.

Most teams succeed by being the best possible version of themselves; Syracuse’s goal is to bring out the worst possible version of its opponents, so that at the end of a game the less bad team has won. During the regular season, the Orange often failed at this: They went 8-10 in ACC play with five double-digit losses, going 2-8 against power-conference teams that made the NCAA tournament. (They also lost to St. Bonaventure.) Yet the selection committee surprised bracketologists by naming Syracuse as the last team in the 2018 field. It seemed like a repeat of 2016, when the committee shocked analysts by making the Orange the team with the lowest RPI rating to ever receive an at-large tournament bid.

And for the second time in three years, the Orange are taking full advantage of their surprise inclusion. Two years ago, they reached the Final Four as a no. 10 seed; now, 11th-seeded Syracuse is in the Sweet 16, having reeled off three straight hideous victories. Of the 52 games played thus far in this year’s tournament, 48 have featured at least one team scoring more than 60 points. Three of the other four were Syracuse wins. Cuse is one of the worst shooting teams in college basketball, ranking 325th out of 351 Division I teams in effective field goal percentage, the lowest any NCAA tournament entrant has been in that stat since 2008—and that 2008 team was a no. 16 seed. But Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense has bewildered three opponents in a row, with the Orange emerging from a trio of on-court rockfights.

Syracuse is ruining college basketball’s biggest party. No one is sure exactly why the Orange were invited, and now that they’re here, they’ve seized control of the aux cord and are forcing everybody to listen to Creed deep cuts. They’ve overstayed their welcome, driving out the guests we were excited to hang with by making crass jokes and “accidentally” knocking beers out of people’s hands while cracking up.

I am genuinely angry about Syracuse’s success. Watching this team play basketball makes me upset, and with each win I grow more upset that the Orange will have another opportunity to upset me again in the future. Yet I have to admit I’ve developed a begrudging respect for them. You can ignore bad trolls, but Syracuse is a master at getting underneath college basketball fans’ skin.

Tyus Battle
Tyus Battle
Elsa/Getty Images

Everything about Syracuse basketball is defined by the 2-3 zone. Head coach Jim Boeheim played zone in high school, begged the first coach who hired him to run more of it, and has been relying on zone defense full time since 1996. He understands the strategy better than anybody else on earth; his orange blood probably executes perfect rotations as it courses from his heart to his head to his toes.

I do not hate the concept of Syracuse basketball; the Carmelo Anthony–led 2003 national championship team is one of my all-time favorites, and I’d describe myself as a Gerry McNamara fan. But as the years have gone by, Syracuse has slowly stripped itself of any defining non-zone features, leaving a twisted husk of a team perfectly designed to do one thing—and only one thing—incredibly well.

Syracuse used to have teams that were good at shooting. In 2009-10, the Orange boasted the second-best effective field goal percentage in the country, riding a strong offense to a 28-3 regular-season record and a deserved no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But now, Boeheim doesn’t play any standout shooters. Since the key to beating a zone is to feature crisp passing and strong outside shooting, and the most effective way to neutralize those traits is with length, Boeheim plays the tallest lineup in college basketball; in fact, the team’s average height of 80.1 inches is the tallest since Ken Pomeroy began tracking the statistic in 2007. Does it matter that by playing such a tall lineup (Frank Howard, the team’s 6-foot-5 point guard, is the shortest player who sees consistent playing time), the Orange have left themselves without reliable 3-point shooters in an era when 3-point shooting is recognized as the most efficient strategy in basketball? No—only the zone matters, and this height improves the zone’s effectiveness.

Syracuse used to have a roster filled with quality bench options. In 2011-12, the team’s second-leading scorer, Dion Waiters, came off the bench, as did role players such as Michael Carter-Williams, C.J. Fair, James Southerland, and Baye Keita. On that squad, 33.9 percent of the roster’s minutes went to bench players; this year, just 15.9 percent of Cuse’s minutes go to bench players, dead last in the country. Howard and Tyus Battle play all 40 minutes in many games. It would seem important to have a strong bench for when players get tired. But for Syracuse it’s not, because of the zone. In a zone, defenders don’t tire themselves out by chasing opponents around the floor. So Boeheim has decided he no longer needs to deploy more than the bare minimum of basketball players necessary.

Syracuse used to play fast. That 2011-12 team with the deep bench averaged 15.7 seconds per possession, the 12th-fastest pace in the country. It worked: The Orange went 30-1 during the regular season, scored at least 90 points in regulation on four separate occasions, and earned a tournament no. 1 seed. This season, Syracuse averaged 19.5 seconds per possession, the 345th-ranked pace in the country, and never scored more than 81 points in regulation. Wouldn’t a team that forces a lot of turnovers and shots that lead to long rebounds want to get out in transition? Again, no: Running would be bad news for a team that has so few players.

The result is one of the least aesthetically pleasing products imaginable: six to seven tall players with little offensive skill and no will to move. Ents would love this team.

And yet in March, Cuse’s zone is a devastating weapon. Normally I’d disagree with the notion that a team is built to win in the tournament; if a team is good at basketball, it stands to reason it should be good at basketball all year long. But the 2-3 zone does require significant preparation, as a successful zone offense is run significantly differently than most teams’ normal offensive sets. While the programs that face (and beat) Syracuse in ACC play have plenty of time to prepare for this, those that play Syracuse in the tourney often do not. It shows.

Arizona State found out on Selection Sunday that it would take on Syracuse the following Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. That gave the Sun Devils roughly 72 hours to game plan, travel most of the way across the country, and execute that plan. They fell short, as Syracuse won 60-56. TCU—which didn’t know for certain it would face Syracuse until the Orange beat Arizona State in that play-in game—had only about 48 hours to fully prepare for the zone. Though Horned Frogs coach Jamie Dixon had an excellent record against Syracuse during his tenure at Pittsburgh, he failed to teach his TCU players how to beat the zone in such a short time frame; Cuse won 57-52. And Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said that he was thinking about the zone when he decided to give little-used reserve Ben Carter extensive minutes in his team’s first-round romp over Bucknell. But Izzo didn’t know that the Spartans would actually play Syracuse until after the Orange upset the Horned Frogs. Michigan State subsequently flailed against the zone, with Syracuse emerging 55-53.

In the NCAA tournament, Cuse is shooting 37.8 percent from the field and 26.2 percent from beyond the arc. If those figures were projected over a full season, they would put Syracuse second to last and dead last in those categories, respectively. But the Orange’s opponents are faring even worse, shooting 34.3 percent from the field and 25.6 percent from 3, and committing an average of 12 turnovers per game. Michigan State’s offensive performance was absolutely disgusting in last Sunday’s matchup: The Spartans made little attempt to penetrate the zone, hoisting up a season-high 37 3-pointers. They hit eight. Their previous season high in 3-point attempts was 29; they missed 29 in this one, meaning they bricked a 3 for every 82 seconds of game time. Izzo gave a season-high 23 minutes to Carter, who was supposed to be useful against the zone, while benching projected NBA lottery pick Jaren Jackson Jr. But Carter wasn’t particularly successful against the zone, repeatedly passing up open shots.

Syracuse convinced Michigan State to abandon its ideal lineup and preferred offense in favor of dreadfully ineffective replacements. The most important space occupied by Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is not in the paint or on the wings, but rather inside the heads of its opponents.

Frank Howard and Jim Boeheim
Frank Howard and Jim Boeheim
Elsa/Getty Images

I won’t lie to you and pretend that I’ve never picked my nose. Honestly, I’m willing to admit that a great nose pick can be really satisfying. But it’s a secret activity. I would never pick my nose if I thought that somebody else could see me. That’s because I care what others think, a trait that Boeheim apparently lacks. He picks his nose all the time, knowing full well that he is being filmed for the entirety of nationally televised basketball games.

Boeheim’s willingness to aggrieve others goes beyond nose-picking, though. He publicly speaks ill about anyone who or anything that doesn’t benefit him. He has ripped current players. After a 2016 loss to Pitt, he blasted forward Tyler Roberson, telling reporters: “If I had anybody else, [Roberson] wouldn’t play a minute.” That somehow simultaneously insulted Roberson and the players behind Roberson in the rotation. Boeheim has ripped ex-players; he has called reporters idiots to their face; and he’s been very open about how much he dislikes Greensboro, where the ACC tournament is sometimes held. He doesn’t care if he offends you. More than that, he doesn’t care if his team’s style of basketball offends you.

Syracuse fans also don’t care that people don’t like their style. They enjoy it. They are better than any other fan base in college basketball at remembering who has criticized their team, and happily harangue them when the Orange do well.

In and of itself, it is not particularly noteworthy that Syracuse has made deep NCAA tournament runs in recent years. This is one of the most successful programs in college basketball. But the Cuse teams that have recently gone on deep runs are different from the ones that did so in the past. As the Orange have gotten progressively worse, they have performed better in March. It’s a contradiction that suits them. This is a coach and fan base that enjoy irritating the basketball world, and these runs of the past few years are their finest work yet.

Next up for Syracuse is a clash with second-seeded Duke, which represents the Orange’s toughest task yet. Not only are the Blue Devils better than any tourney team Cuse has played to date, but they’re also an ACC opponent. Unlike Arizona State, TCU, and Michigan State, Duke is intimately familiar with the Orange, having already beaten them 60-44 on February 24. And the Blue Devils run a 2-3 zone as well, something Boeheim helped Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski learn during their time together with USA Basketball. The Blue Devils shouldn’t struggle against a defense they run in practice.

I am conditioned to root against Syracuse, but I have grown to respect their troll game. And on Friday, my only other option is Duke. I am drinking the orange juice. It is horribly acidic and filled with pulp, but I’m drinking it. Go Syracuse.