No time to waste! Wisconsin Badgers, Syracuse Orange. Let’s break down the keys for a Badger victory.

Beating the Syracuse 2-3 zone

We’ve heard about it the entire college basketball season, how Syracuse’s hyped 2-3 zone defense is one of the hardest to beat in the nation. There’s plenty of support for this belief, most likely in the fact that Syracuse has lost only twice this season. However, the Orange have yet to face a team as disciplined as Wisconsin.

With 6-foot-9 freshman Rakeem Christmas taking the suspended Fab Melo’s spot in two tournament wins, the Orange have yet to play a team from a power conference at full-strength (Kansas State had to play Syracuse this past Saturday without starting senior forward Jamar Samuels due to eligibility issues). If UNC-Asheville could nearly upset Syracuse, there is absolutely no reason the Badgers cannot do so Thursday night.

The easiest way to beat the Orange’s stifling 2-3 zone is to feed the ball to the high and low posts. This may seem like elementary theory, but the soft spots against the 2-3 are the high post and sometimes the short corner near the low block. If Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans can make some shots early on in the paint to even remotely put pressure on the middle of the 2-3, Syracuse’s zone will have to collapse to solidify the middle, thus drawing multiple defenders inside and allowing easy kick out passes for open 3s.

Another way the Badgers can beat the zone is by stretching it. The Badgers may have a hard time working the ball into the posts because of the length, size and athleticism of every single Orange player on the floor. Combined with ‘Cuse’s terrific active hands and athleticism, any ill-conceived or lazy pass against their 2-3 is a certain turnover. 

However, if the Badgers truly wish to beat the Orange’s zone, they need to hit a few outside shots. In the two games where Syracuse has fallen this year, opponents have on average shot 47 percent from beyond the arc. The Badgers may not need to shoot that well, but if Jordan Taylor and Ben Brust can show some of the range they did in Wisconsin’s win against Vanderbilt, Syracuse will be forced to stretch its zone outside of the 3-point line, making them vulnerable for dribble penetration and the easy looks from kick-out passes that result from said penetration.

Syracuse holds opposing teams on average to a 38.3 field goal percentage, the seventh best in the nation. If the Badgers hope to beat up Syracuse offensively, they will need to have good offensive balance, which means not relying solely on the 3-ball but instead balancing an inside-outside attack to give the Syracuse zone fits. Discipline is a key when attacking the zone, and that’s something Bo Ryan’s squad has in spades, especially with Taylor at the point.

Limit turnovers, don’t give up dribble penetration

The Syracuse offense can directly relate to the turnovers its 2-3 defense causes. The Orange know how to get the ball better than almost any team in the nation, averaging the third most steals per game in the country at just over nine. The Orange have an entire roster full of athletes who are at their best when they are running the floor in transition off a turnover. Layups, alley-oop dunks, kick-out bombs from beyond the arc – all just aspects of a dangerous group of bright orange jerseys in transition.

If one thing is for certain, it’s that the Badgers cannot hope to run with the Orange. Rather, the Badgers must be even more methodical and precise on the offensive end than usual.

Because Syracuse is at its most dangerous in transition, the best way to limit that transition is to prevent it entirely. Wisconsin’s Taylor is one of the best point guards in the nation when it comes to not turning the ball over, which is essential if the Badgers look to keep the game at their own pace throughout the game and in the half-court.

Defensively in the half-court, the Badgers face the daunting task of containing the Orange’s offense. Syracuse’s offense is a lot like Montana’s, except with players of the highest athletic caliber. Almost every player in the Syracuse rotation can knock down the 3, making them a team that can kill you on offense from both inside and outside. Cincinnati most recently had success against Syracuse in the Big East tournament by forcing them to shoot outside or off the dribble, solidifying the middle and penetration with a 2-3 zone of their own.

While the chances of Bo Ryan opening the game with the Badgers in a zone defense are minimal, Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin did reveal a formula to beating the Orange. By limiting the dribble-drive penetration of the Syracuse guards to a minimum, he effectively forced the Orange to shoot contested jump shots rather than the open 3s and layups they are accustomed to creating off successful dribble drives into the lane.

Final Prediction

If the Badgers want to walk out of this game with a victory, they’ll have to make their shots. Syracuse may be the more athletic team compared to Wisconsin, but the half-court discipline on offense and defense that Bo Ryan has honed in his players should prove to give the Badgers a promising shot at victory. If Wisconsin can exert its will by controlling the tempo of the game and making it a half-court slug-fest, the Badgers should beat a top-seeded team in the tournament for the first time under Bo Ryan. 

Wisconsin 65 Syracuse 63

Nick is a senior majoring in English and history. Think Nick left anything out? Email him to let him know at [email protected]