GREENSBORO, NC - MARCH 08: Head coach Jim Boeheim of the Syracuse Orange looks on during the second half against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Greensboro Coliseum Complex on March 8, 2023 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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Syracuse's Famous Zone Defense Is Done With Jim Boeheim Gone

Somebody should probably check the Farmer's Almanac and make sure it's still supposed to snow in Syracuse this winter. They also might want to double check that death and taxes are both still doing all right, because everything seems to be changing in central New York.

The Orange have a new head coach for the first time since the Gerald Ford administration, as Adrian Autry replaces Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim. The delightfully cranky Boeheim had been coach of Syracuse since April 3, 1976. The NBA and ABA were still separate leagues back then. Microsoft, the Tampa Bay Bucs, ESPN and the Big East didn't yet exist. Elvis, Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx were still alive. The slam dunk was still illegal in college basketball.

Judah Mintz is a sophomore on the current Syracuse team and the star of Boeheim's last recruiting class. His parents were still five years away from being born when Boeheim took the Syracuse job.

So clearly, Syracuse is in store for a big transition, regardless of how Autry approaches the job.

When the Orange made the switch following last season, Boeheim told Autry, a former player for him and longtime assistant, "Do it your way. Whatever you believe, whatever you think is right, do it your way. And you better believe in it. Because you ain't gonna get anyone else to believe in it, if you don't."

Autry has clearly taken that advice to heart, because he started off his debut season by making the biggest change imaginable.

"I think when you watch us play this year, I think you'll see a difference on both sides of the ball," Autry said at ACC preseason media day. "I think defensively, obviously, the main question is the zone. Will we play zone? Yeah, but is that our primary defense? No. It will not be going forward."

Boeheim's 2-3 matchup zone had been as closely associated with Syracuse as Dinosaur Barbecue and black ice.

"We'll play different types of defenses," Autry explained.

While it's a significant change for the Orange, it's worth going back in history to get a bit of perspective. Boeheim has always been a disciple of the zone defense, and the 2-3 was a major part of the Syracuse arsenal throughout his coaching tenure. In the 1987 NCAA Championship Game against Indiana, the Orange opened the game in the 2-3 and played it for the first two possessions.

However, Boeheim was 20 years into his coaching tenure before he made the decision to go to the 2-3 as the team's sole defensive scheme.

Going back to the tape of the 1987 title game, Syracuse went to a box and one on Indiana's third possession of the game, then straight man-to-man on the fourth.

"Finally, it dawned on me that if we played zone all the time and didn't waste time playing man-to-man and put some wrinkles in the zone, that our defense would be better," Boeheim said about 10 years ago, after his team had been running it, and nothing else, for 18 years.

Prior to 1996, though, Orange players learned and practiced man-to-man, as well as the zone.

Pearl Washington played man-to-man at Syracuse. So did Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens and Roosevelt Bouie.

And Adrian Autry, a member of the Orange from 1990 to 1994, also played man-to-man. He's making sure that the 2023-24 Orange will too, but playing it isn't enough. Like the zone, man-to-man is a lifestyle.

"Obviously, playing man-to-man is the biggest difference for us," Autry said. "It'll be our primary defense, but we're not just playing it. What I've been preaching is, 'Don't just play it to play it. We've got to be effective with it. We've got to lean on it, depend on it.' That's been the challenge for every coach (on the staff) to get them to buy in on that end of the floor."

The players seem ready for the change.

"We've got a lot of athletes on our team, and it fits us perfectly," Mintz said. "I've been itching to play man-to-man, get up in guys, to be able to pick up full-court, sometimes."

In a preseason exhibition against Daemen, Autry unveiled the Syracuse man-to-man. It produced four turnovers on the first five possessions.

"There were good points to it, especially in the first half," Autry said. "The second half wasn't good. I don't think we got back in transition. We've been working on getting back, being able to locate their shooters. But in the first half, I thought we had some good moments where we sped them up, kept the ball on one side, made them play fast and made them take the quick shot or dribble it out of bounds."

Once the games count for real, Autry will have an effective safety net, if Syracuse's man-to-man isn't getting the job done.

"We played man when I played," he said. "We played zone and man-to-man. We are going to play zone, but it's just not our primary defense. We'll be able to change it up. Some games, we may have to play zone. I just like to have versatility. It's a great defense, and it can work. It has worked. I'm fortunate to know the ins and outs of it, so I have something in my back pocket."

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