PISCATAWAY – The game plan is simple. Constant ball and player movement as you try and navigate your way to the middle of the defense.
The execution, however, is not. Especially when your backcourt rotation consists of three freshmen and when you get to the teeth of the defense, you can get chewed up and spit out by the 7-foot Fab Melo, who’s averaging three blocks per game.
Sprinkle in the fact that No. 2 Syracuse’s 2-3 has been orchestrated by a Hall of Fame head coach who’s been using the formula for decades, and you’re facing quite a challenge.
“It’s a puzzle and we talked about it being a puzzle,” Rutgers' head coach Mike Rice said following Friday’s practice.
To figure out which pieces go where, one must know where the holes of the defense come in a 2-3 zone. Typically, they come at the three-point arc, foul line extended and spots along the baseline.
But this isn’t you’re typical 2-3 zone.
“It depends on what you do. It depends on how they react to it,” Rice said of finding the holes. “Against Syracuse's zone you can’t say, ‘ok we’re going to attack it this way’ because he’s a Hall of Fame coach. He adjusts and so every time there has to be a purpose to you. A toughness.”
Purpose and toughness are two things Rice has been preaching all season. But his callow team has lacked both as of late in their 1-6 stretch.
So it’s up to his veterans who have seen Syracuse before to help instill that mentality into the freshman.
“Just be tough in the zone. When you got open shots have confidence enough to just make them,” sophomore Mike Poole said. “Their zone, there is a lot of gaps in the middle so when we get in there just be tough, be strong and finish through contact, make plays through contact, help pass to the open man in the zone….Just be strong with it.”
And have patience. There’s no need to rush through offensive sets or chuck up quick shots like Syracuse wants their opponents to.
One key benefit of being in a 2-3 zone is that you’re always ready to get out and run in transition. Especially on shots that take a hard bounce off the rim.
“Patience I feel like is really key,” Austin Johnson said. “If you put up quick, long shots, they’ll get long rebounds and they’ll get long run outs where they thrive.”
Instead of rushing shots, Rutgers needs to penetrate to the middle of the zone. Collapse it to the middle, and swing the ball around to the open shooter.
“You have to collapse the D at some point whether it’s through dribble penetration, post feed, or a short corner pass or a screen. You got to collapse the D to get an open shot,” Rice said. “It hasn’t been our strength — discipline on the offensive end, execution on the offensive end — we’re working very hard on that, and hopefully they improve and get better at it.
“I think they’re excited about the challenge, it’s just, again, how do they respond once Syracuse goes on an 8-0 run?”
The best way to respond is by not allowing it to happen often. That’s done by smart offensive possessions, with smart shots and minimal turnovers.
Keep the Orange out of transition while minimizing their amount of possessions.
“Best way to defend Syracuse is have a great offense, so hopefully we can do that,” Rice said. “Make some shots and take care of the basketball.”
A simple plan, but difficult to execute.