PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 11: Tyrone Johnson #3 of the Villanova Wildcats drives for a shot attempt against Fab Melo #51 of the Syracuse Orange at the Wells Fargo Center on January 11, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone obscures much of what Syracuse's NBA-level prospects can do. Despite that, Fab Melo and Kris Joseph have drawn NBA attention, and a few youngsters will do the same next season.
The key to Mike Leach's success at Texas Tech, a school without much football tradition located in a remote area of West Texas, was a simple insight: since Tech would always lose to Texas or Texas A&M in recruiting battles, the Red Raiders would never beat their in-state rivals if they played by their rules.
So instead of trying to battle with the Longhorns and the Aggies on the line of scrimmage, he ran a contrarian scheme where the QB passed the ball 60-70 times a game. Tech never had as many NFL prospects as their Big 12 competitors, but under Leach, it did not matter.
That's the beauty of college athletics, where smaller schools gameplan around their competitive disadvantages instead of endlessly complaining about them. It's why the style of play varies so much in college football, with offenses running the spectrum from Leach's pass-happy attack to the triple-option, even though the vast majority of NFL offenses look alike.
The best example of a successful college coach running a contrarian scheme is Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. Since taking over in 1976, he's used the 2-3 zone to turn a private school in upstate New York into a national basketball power.
The ability to defend a position is one of the biggest hurdles a player faces when jumping from high school to college and from college to the pros, but the 2-3 makes that a non-issue.
Hakim Warrick, a 6'9 forward too skinny to defend NBA fours and too slow to defend NBA threes, was a defensive standout in Boeheim's scheme. Andy Rautins, a 6'4 pure shooter with good ball skills, didn't last at the next level because he couldn't play individual defense, but his length made him an asset at the top of the 2-3.
To beat a zone, teams need skilled big men who can operate out of the high post as well as consistent perimeter shooting. More importantly, they have to give up the ball, cut to open spots and make crisp passes around the perimeter, which means most college teams have to throw out their offensive game plan against the Orange.
Syracuse defeated a far more talented Florida squad earlier this season, primarily because the 2-3 neutralized the Gators' strengths (their ability to drive to the rim) and exposed their weaknesses (poor perimeter shooting).
The Orange are the No. 1 team in the country despite not having as many sure-fire future pros as UNC and Kentucky, but because they use a system that maximizes their talent and minimizes their opponents', it doesn't really matter.
7'0 sophomore center
- Shot creation: Highly-touted Brazilian recruit who improved dramatically after losing over 30 pounds in the offseason. Has flashed glimpses of a low-post game, but almost all his 7.2 points come off hustle plays in the paint.
- Defense: At 7'0 and 245 pounds, has strength to hold position in the post and athleticism to move across the lane and reject shots above the rim. Averaging 2.8 blocks in 22 minutes this year. DeSagana Diop has made over $30 million in the NBA doing little else.
- Outside shot: Career 44.4 percent free throw shooter with no business having the ball in his hands outside of the paint.
- Passing: Doesn't have skill level to make anything but basic unguarded passes. Has 12 assists and 23 turnovers this season.
- Rebounding: Plays with a high motor if not always a high basketball IQ. 5.4 rebounding average as a sophomore depressed by not having individual box-out responsibilities in the 2-3.
- Best case: Athletic 7-footer capable of anchoring defense and finishing at the rim -- Robin Lopez.
- Worst case: Third-string center without skill to do much more than commit six hard fouls -- Jarron Collins.
6'7 senior small forward
- Shot creation: Excellent shooter with quick release and high 6'7 release point. Uses threat of outside shot to create driving lanes, but doesn't have ball-handling ability or athleticism to score efficiently off the bounce. Uses a turn-around J to score over smaller defenders in the post. Averaging 13.8 points on 43.3 percent shooting as a senior.
- Defense: Always a big question for Boeheim's forwards since they don't have individual defensive assignments in the 2-3. Ability to play consistent perimeter defense will be essential to sticking at the next level.
- Outside shot: The strength of his game, has steadily improved shooting percentages in four years at Syracuse. Shooting 40.3 percent from three-point range and 79.2 percent from free throw line this season.
- Passing: Comfortable moving the ball around the perimeter, but doesn't have athleticism or skill level to draw double teams and create shots for teammates. Averaging 1.8 assists and 1.2 turnovers as a senior.
- Rebounding: Smart player with long arms who can track down out-of-area rebounds. Career average of 4.5 boards.
- Best case: Replacement-level small forward whose ability to shoot threes keeps him in the NBA -- Rasual Butler.
- Worst case: Good player for an elite college program whose fringe NBA skill-set and average athletic ability sends him to Europe -- Reyshawn Terry.
Dion Waiters: Extremely athletic 6'4 sophomore combo guard with length to defend multiple perimeter positions (averaging 2.2 steals this year). Complete player who can shoot from the perimeter (36.2 percent from three), drive the ball to the rim and create shots for teammates (2.9 assists to 1.5 turnovers). Despite playing behind two upperclassmen, scoring 12.9 points while shooting a preposterous 53.3 percent from the field. If production translates over 30-35 minutes a night, will be a lottery pick in 2013.
Michael Carter-Williams: 6'5 freshman McDonald's All-American whose shown ability to run point in limited minutes. Will have a much bigger role next year with graduation of Scoop Jardine.
CJ Fair: Athletic 6'8 sophomore forward with length to be a factor on the glass (5.2 rebounds a game) and an excellent feel for scoring around the rim. Needs to improve three-point shot to make jump to the next level.
Baye Moussa-Keita: Long and athletic 6'10 center, averaging 1.2 blocks in 12.4 minutes as a sophomore. Needs to add weight to 215-pound frame.
Rakeem Christmas: 6'9 McDonald's All-American getting limited minutes as a freshman. Has to wait for a bigger role to show what he can do.