After NC State win, SUs zone may have turned a corner heading into March

GREENSBORO, N. C. Syracuses margin of error officially vanished 11 days ago in the McCamish Pavilion. Marek Dolezaj was too outmatched inside, and Syracuses defense got exposed. SU desperately turned on a full-court trap. Georgia Tech scored 54 of its 84 points in the paint and converted half its shot attempts. . . The Syracuse team that has shut down opponents since then barely resembles the one that lost its final chance at a Quadrant 1 victory at Georgia Tech in late February. . . The defensive struggles werent isolated to just the GT loss it has lagged behind all year. It allowed 96 points to Pittsburgh and 85 to Duke. There have been missed assignments, soft guard play and an undersized back line. Even after its second round Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament win, SU is 86th in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. . . But Syracuses Achilles heel may have been repaired at the flip of the calendar into March. In its last three games, all wins, SU has held its opponents to under 40% shooting from the field. In those three victories, SUs forced an average of 13. 3 turnovers per game, near its season average including nonconference play. . The No. 8 Orange 16-8, 9-7 ACC offense showed how dangerous it can be in Wednesdays 89-68 win over No. 9 NC State 13-10, 9-8, but a more significant development is SUs 2-3 zone coming together at the right time. SU has more options defensively and is playing more on a string. Blink twice and youll see the defense thats given teams fits this time of year in the past. . . I think were better, SU head coach Jim Boeheim said postgame. I think were playing better defense. I think our rebounding has been better. But our offense has been there all year. . . Syracuses defense started Wednesday as a regression to the pre-March Orange. SU lost shooters and allowed easy high-post entries as the Wolfpack worked the ball around the perimeter. The score was 12-11 five minutes into the game. . We just couldnt stop them, and they couldnt stop us, Boeheim said. . . Part of that was defensive rebounding. The Wolfpack cleaned up the glass early, and even though SU often swatted putback attempts away, NC States second-chance points piled up. Dolezaj picked up two early fouls and was replaced by 6-foot-11 sophomore center Jesse Edwards. . . Edwards registered 23 and 24 minutes against Georgia Tech and North Carolina, respectively, but played sparingly in the regular season finale against Clemson. Hes established himself as a reliable option in the middle of the zone, but it was unclear pregame how much hed be featured against NC State, which he played just two minutes against in their two regular season matchups. . . Edwards gives SU a different look defensively. A traditional center, Edwards can battle inside for rebounds and challenge shots at the rim effectively. He entered against NC State and instantly provided a boost, blocking a Shakeel Moore layup out of bounds and affecting several others. . . Reserve Robert Braswell also came off the bench and gave SUs defense a boost. Boeheim previously said the redshirt sophomore is the best on the team at rotating from the weak side to disrupt plays, and thats exactly what he did. One play, he tracked down from the far side 3-point line to break up an entry pass to D. J. Funderburk in front of the rim. Late in the second half, he hustled back on defense and forced a missed layup on the fast break. . . When it goes in the high post, Braswell drops down almost right away and he cuts that pass off, Buddy Boeheim game-high 27 points said. He got a couple deflections, steals, and you can trust him. You know hes going to make the right play. Hes a really smart player. . . Even with Braswell and Edwards playing meaningful minutes, SU allowed a subpar 38 first-half points. Then the Orange turned up the defense to start the final frame. . . Syracuse brought its original starting five out to begin the second half, and that group held NC State scoreless for the opening two minutes. It forced five turnovers in four minutes, leading to buckets on the other end. Dolezaj and Quincy Guerrier collected live-ball steals, and the Wolfpacks Manny Bates and Dereon Seabron coughed up unforced errors. And when NC State could get shots off, they clanked and fell into Orange arms. . It was part NC State implosion, part SU cranking up the temperature. SU turned a five-point lead into a 16-point advantage in four minutes. . . The defensive dominance continued for the rest of the game. NC State scored 30 second-half points on 29. 6% from the field as SU extended its lead. The Orange even won the rebounding battle, 33 to 31. . . Our defense was just better in the second half, Boeheim said. That was the difference in the game. . . With Edwards, Braswell, Dolezaj, Guerrier and Alan Griffin patrolling the paint, SU held the Wolfpack to 36% shooting overall and just 34% on 2-pointers mostly attempts in the lane. . . In 2018, when Syracuse snuck into the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed, it reached the Sweet Sixteen in part by upsetting Michigan State 55-53. That game, the Tyus Battle-led Orange held the Spartans to 25. 8% shooting. . . This is a much different group than the 2018 team though it is also right on the edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble but countless iterations of the Syracuse zone have spooked teams in the postseason. When asked about how Syracuse was able to beat the Wolfpack all three times this season, Funderburk had a familiar answer in a familiar month. . . Probably the zone, Funderburk said. Thats all I can really put it to, is the zone.

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