As you are probably well aware, the Syracuse Orange are known for their zone defense. Head coach Jim Boehein and the Syracuse coaches specifically target long and athletic recruits to force into the 2-3 zone. The results, as evident by Syracuse's success, have been stellar.
Syracuse is also one of the few teams in the nation that uses zone as its primary defense. Most of the time, you see teams running man-to-man, and occasionally switching to zone to try and mess up an opposing offense. Syracuse does this from the get go. So the obvious question, how do you beat it?
There are three principle ways to break down a 2-3 zone: ball reversal, attacking the gaps, and getting the ball into the high post. On paper, it seems like the Zags have good options for all of these tasks, so lets take a look at the roles of some of the players.
E-Mac was absolutely stellar against Utah. He was driving to the hoop at will and wreaking havoc on both ends of the court. Against Syracuse, they don't need McClellan taking any three-pointers. The Zags need his feet of fire to dart in and out of that zone defense whenever he can. The easiest way to breaking down an effective zone is to get inside it and force players to collapse. McClellan likes to drive to the hoop--nearly 45.8 percent of his field goal attempts come at the rim, second only to Domantas Sabonis. He needs to maintain that head of steam he showed against Utah, because McClellan is much more efficient at finishing near the hoop than Josh Perkins is (58.7 percent at the hoop vs. 43.9 percent for Perkins).
Wiltjer is the definitive x-factor for the Zags in this game, and he might be the player that breaks down the zone the easiest. Wiltjer's three-point prowess gives the Zags the potential to have four shooters on the court at any time. The Zags can just pass the ball all over the perimeter, and most likely, whoever is stepping up to Wiltjer will be missing a few inches on the Gonzaga forward.
He is also good enough to start with the ball at the high post, or away from the basket, and eventually work his way down low. The key for Wiltjer will be recognizing the moment the zone is collapsing on him. He has a tendency to ignore the double team coming his way and suddenly he has four to six hands blocking his every line of sight. If Syracuse decides to hone in, Wiltjer needs to kick the ball out. The Gonzaga guards have done a decent enough job of hitting open three pointers as of late to keep teams honest. Wiltjer down low will be critical for the Zags to get their inside-out game going.
One of the hallmarks of beating the zone is attacking the gaps. Once you are in that gap, if you are a decent jump shooter, you can make life miserable for your opponent. Perkins, believe it or not, is a pretty good jump shooter. Perkins leads the team, shooting 53.8 percent on two-point jumpers. He also is stellar at creating his own shot, with only 8.6 percent of those jumpers coming off an assist (courtesy of Hoop-Math.com). Perkins loves to take it to the rim as well, but his jumper has been more effective. If he has his stroke, he needs to be bold and take the shot.
Overall, the best way to beat a zone is to play just solid team ball, and that is where Gonzaga has been shining as of late. The Zags have rarely looked flustered over the past 240 minutes of basketball. There have been some bad shots in there, but the tendency to go completely silent has disappeared--thankfully. Syracuse is hardly an easy out, but Gonzaga has shown that it can rise up to whatever challenge it is faced with as of late. A smart 40 minutes of Gonzaga-style basketball, and this game is ours. Anything less than that and the result gets a little bit iffy.