Syracuse hopes to slow Kentucky with 'puzzling' 2-3 zone

By The Associated Press
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 1, 1996

The Associated Press
Arizona Daily Wildcat

There have not been many obstacles Walter McCarty and the rest of Kentucky have not overcome this season. Syracuse provides the final hurdle in tonight's NCAA title game.


NEW YORK - Rick Pitino likes to preach to his Kentucky basketball team about living in the ''precious present.'' No looking ahead or back. Just worry about today.

Well, almost no looking back.

When Kentucky faces Syracuse in the NCAA championship game tonight as a 14-point favorite, its toughest job will be solving the Orangemen's 2-3 zone. The zone has been a much-discussed topic among the Wildcats ever since it was used by North Carolina to beat them in last year's Southeast Regional final.

''The North Carolina loss is the only thing we look back on from the past,'' Kentucky point guard Anthony Epps said Sunday. ''We go against that zone every day in practice.''

After a season in which it didn't really seem to matter what defense was used against them, the Wildcats (33-2) will finally get to go against the zone in a game. They won by an average of 23 points this season, and Saturday night's 81-74 semifinal victory over top-ranked Massachusetts was their first NCAA tournament win by fewer than 20 points.

Still, last season's 74-61 loss to North Carolina one step from the Final Four has been a tough one to forget. The Wildcats shot just 28 percent and were 7-for-36 from 3-point range.

''After last year, when we played North Carolina, we have played against a 2-3 zone for anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes every day,'' Pitino said. ''We've been good at attacking it and we have to be, because Syracuse plays the best 2-3 zone in the country.''

Syracuse (29-8), which reached the title game with a 77-69 victory over Mississippi State, has won praise - not ridicule - for the zone, especially during its improbable NCAA tournament run. The defense received the credit for the regional final win over Kansas when the Jayhawks became the fourth straight team to shoot under 39 percent and were 4-for-25 from beyond the arc.

The zone was shaping up to be the wrong way to go early in Saturday night's game when Mississippi State hit three 3s in as many attempts in the opening four minutes. But the rest of the way, the Orangemen's zone forced the Bulldogs into turnovers and negated their inside game.

Kentucky doesn't want to make the same mistake.

''You have to keep attacking the zone,'' Pitino said. ''You can't rely on fool's gold if you make three or four long jump shots and you think you've discovered a way to beat it. Patience, dribble penetration and offensive rebounding are what's needed to beat a great defense like that.''

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who went to the zone because of his team's lack of depth and speed, knows what his team is up against in Kentucky, the preseason No. 1 and a team that was considered the favorite to win it all all season.

''They have tremendous depth and are good at every position, and they are able to inside-outside at every position. That's why they've been the way they've been all year,'' said Boeheim, who hired Pitino as an assistant in his first season at Syracuse. ''They present a lot of problems, and we have to come up with some solutions.''

Just like Kentucky has to solve that zone.

''The way we play, we encourage people to take 3-point shots,'' Boeheim said. ''But it's not just shooting, it's how you attack it. We have to be prepared for that and adjust to whatever they do.''

Whatever Kentucky does, it will be with a lot of players. Pitino uses a 10-man rotation to keep the pressure defense intense and fresh. Syracuse plays seven players, and the starters log most of the minutes. That makes point guard Lazarus Sims the key man in the Orangemen's offense.