Indiana thought it had seen just about everything when it escaped the brutal Big Ten Conference with an outright title.
Then the Hoosiers started looking at tape on Syracuse’s zone defense.
“We don’t see a lot of 2-3 zones like this,” senior guard Jordan Hulls said Wednesday. “They're very long, very athletic, they close out to balls a lot faster than what we’ve seen, even on film.”
Syracuse plays a zone unlike any other team in the country, a zone that has given Big East coaches fits ever since Jim Boeheim got the head-coaching job in 1976. Top-seeded Indiana will try to solve the dynamic defense when it plays the No. 4 seed Orange at approximately 9:45 p.m. today in an East Regional semifinal at the Verizon Center.
So, what makes the Syracuse zone to difficult to beat? Well, mostly the athletes Boeheim recruits to play it. The shortest player in the Orange’s starting lineup is Brandon Triche at 6-foot-4. Syracuse’s front line of C.J. Fair (6-8), James Southerland (6-8) and Rakeem Christmas (6-9) is capable of flying around and trapping in the corners.
“They’re all athletic, long guys,” said junior forward Will Sheehey. “They like to get up in your face. They get out and challenge passing lanes, they don’t kinda pack it in. It‚s almost like a pressure 2-3 zone.”
Indiana coach Tom Crean saw the Syracuse zone a few times when he was at Marquette from 1999-2008. But he said that won‚t necessarily give him any sort of an advantage this time around.
“I don’t think you can look at that zone and think you’re going to beat it any one way,” Crean said, “but I don’t think you can look at the zone and think you can stand around and pass the ball around the perimeter, either. That is a recipe for defeat.”
The Hoosiers have spent a good part of their week preparing for the length they will see on tonight. In many ways, though, their week has been a normal one. The players want to make sure they don‚t psyche themselves out with talk of the zone and let it make them do things out of the ordinary.
“We’re gonna move the ball and hit open shots,‰ said senior forward Derek Elston. “That’s kinda been the key all year, and I don’t think anything’s going to change.”
If the Hoosiers are to conquer the Syracuse zone, hitting perimeter shots will be key. One of Indiana’s best shooters, Hulls, looked good in practice Wednesday after suffering a right shoulder injury in Sunday’s win over Temple. Hulls shot the ball well and didn’t appear to be favoring the shoulder at all.
“It’s feeling good,” Hulls said. “Once it got loose, I was able to shoot well. The doctors are doing a great job of getting me back in shape, feeling well.”
• First time since 1987 — When Indiana and Syracuse meet tonight, it will be the first time they’ve played one another since the 1987 national championship game. That was the year Indiana’s Keith Smart hit the famous baseline shot to beat the Orange at the end.
Sheehey said the Hoosiers are well aware of that game and shot because it is played on their video montage in the locker room before every game.
“It means a lot for any of those guys to be compared to any of us,” Sheehey said. “We always look up in Assembly Hall and see the banners, and we know the correlation between them.”
• Harbaugh on hand — John Harbaugh, head coach of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, made the trip to the Verizon Center to see Indiana‚s public practice Wednesday afternoon. Harbaugh said he would be at the game on Thursday night and plans to follow the Hoosiers as far as they go.
“I’m excited to be a part of it. I love these players,” Harbaugh said.
“I’ve got a plane ticket to Atlanta, but I'm not going if the Hoosiers don’t go.”