WASHINGTON – The tide is coming fast now – an orange sea rising, crashing, rolling, licking at your feet, flying at your head. You look up and see a forest of hands. You look down and see hands, too. And you wonder how this is possible. You ask how this is happening. And this is when they have you.
For much of these last three decades, the Syracuse Orange have played a single defense – they have played a 2-3 zone. There have been moments when Syracuse has deviated from this plan and its coach, Jim Boeheim, has been struck by a momentary need to have his players express some repressed animalistic virility and play a traditional man-to-man defense. Such moments have not worked well. Invariably "The Zone" returns.
But never in the years Syracuse has played its trademarked zone, dating back to a forward named John Wallace and a national championship game against Kentucky in 1996, has one of its teams played a zone so hard, so furious and so complete as this, the fourth of Boeheim's Final Four clubs.
The Zone has been so dominant that Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams sat at his locker after the Orange had trampled Marquette 55-39 in the East Region final to advance to next weekend's Final Four in Atlanta and said "It's going to take a team a perfect game," to beat it.
"This is the best one," Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins said.
Hopkins would know. He once played for Boeheim at Syracuse and has been an assistant there since that fateful 1995-96 season when the zone became The Zone.
Really, he is asked. The best? Better than that '95-'96 Final Four season? Better than 2002-2003 when Syracuse won the national title? Better than any of those 17 teams that have made The Zone their own?
"The best," he repeated.
The decimation left by The Zone in a lost NCAA tournament weekend for fellow Final Four contenders included the crumpled remains of top-seeded Indiana and No. 3 Marquette, neither of whom could solve the labyrinth of waving arms and moving bodies no matter how much they had watched it on tape. The Zone forced Indiana to shoot 33 percent and turn the ball over 19 times Thursday night. It forced 14 Marquette turnovers and made the Golden Eagles shoot 22 percent Saturday afternoon. The Zone broke giants like Indiana's Cody Zeller, a presumed NBA lottery pick. The Zone crushed guards like Marquette's Vander Blue, who shot 3-for-15 on Saturday.
"They're long," Marquette forward Juan Anderson kept saying of Syracuse's players. "They're long and athletic."
He was asked which was worse in The Zone, the long or the athletic.
He shook his head.
"The combination of both," he replied. "It's hard to distinguish between one or the other."
This is because fourth-seeded Syracuse has committed to The Zone this season. Boeheim, in his 37th year of coaching, figured it was pointless not to do so. "If you're playing more than one defense you probably aren't very good at either of them," he told Hopkins.
"It became more exclusive [this year]," Hopkins said as he stood in Syracuse's locker room. "It's what you do."
All around him the players celebrated, wearing white Final Four t-shirts over their orange uniform jerseys. They shouted. They hugged coaches. They sat at their lockers and smiled. They told stories of playing harder in recent weeks. They talked of unity. They said the lowest point of the season was a 61-39 loss to Georgetown in this very building on the last game of the regular season.
They talked about the first practice after that defeat. It was morning at their Manley Field House and the coaches were meeting, trying to decipher what was wrong, and the players – left alone on the court – decided to run their own practice. And as the coaches came down from their meeting 45 minutes later, the players were in the middle of 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 drills. And the coaches watched because what else do you say when the kids are doing their homework while the parents were away?
"I just stood next to the water cooler and said 'wow,' " Hopkins recalled. "'Do we have leadership?' "
After that, The Zone was ferocious. After that, The Zone was almost unstoppable.
Guard Brandon Triche admitted Thursday night that the Orange weren't playing with the same ferocity during the last month and a half of the regular season when they went 5-7. After the Georgetown loss and the morning practice the intensity came back.
The Marquette players noticed this. They said the zone Syracuse played against them in a 74-71 loss on Feb. 25 was not The Zone. It wasn't even close. They said Syracuse's players practically walked through their defense in that game. They said the defense was sluggish. Shots weren't challenged. Passes weren't batted away.
On Saturday, everything about The Zone was fast.
The Zone can be confounding. Not many teams play a zone anymore. They might have variations of it but few commit to it. Few try to make it their own. And around Syracuse they wonder why not. Hopkins keeps a list of the teams that play zone at least 80 percent of the time. He says it's a short list – 10 teams tops. He then notes that three of those 10 – Syracuse, Louisville and Baylor – were in last year's Elite Eight.
"It must be on page 172 of the coaching book: 'Thou shalt not play zone,' " Hopkins said.
He laughed. The celebration rolled on around him.
Now The Zone goes to Atlanta. And The Zone will face either Michigan or Florida, which are justifiable contenders for the national championship. The Zone will be tested there. Perhaps The Zone will lose its venom. Maybe the wave of orange will be more of a trickle. But even if that happens, there will always be this, the weekend of The Zone.
For Syracuse over a three-day stretch played defense so good it rattled a man from a high school called Kings Fork (Gardner) and sent a president (Barack Obama) to his limousine before the game's ugly end. The Zone kept coming. Kept pushing. Kept overwhelming.
Until there was nobody left and only the Final Four remained.
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