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Cal Men's Basketball Maui Invitational Semifinal Preview vs. Syracuse

Nine months ago, the Syracuse Orangemen ended Cal's season with a rout in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. Once again, we find ourselves staring down the daunting prospect of solving their infamous 2-3 zone.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Orange lose three starters from their '12 squad, don't expect that to matter much. The names may change, but the song stays the same; Boeheim will whine and his teams will re-load.

Last year, he lost the core of his 2011 #1 seeded team, weathered some depth issues via injury/suspension, and coached his 2012 players to the Final Four.

This year's iteration still has eight players 6'7 or taller, and eight players rated as top 100 recruits. So play-maker extraordinaire Michael Carter-Williams declares early? Let's just replace him with top-20 recruit Tyler Ennis who is already projected as a 1st round NBA pick. Savvy veteran Brandon Triche graduated? How about we make do with a top-30 transfer from Duke?

Let's not fool ourselves. The Orange are a bigger, deeper team and will play a stifling defensive zone. They force teams to shoot a low percentage from 3, cause a lot of turnovers, and thrive off of converting mistakes into points.

Although our veterans at least have the benefit of having faced the Syracuse zone before, they have yet to display the ability to defeat it. Charitably put, the Oakland Grizzlies were able to disrupt our offense with their zone…and they're not remotely in the same league as the Orangemen.

Following last year's game, one of our more hoops-savvy readers posted this: (HT boomtho)

"Now, the bad: the offense. It pains me to say it, but Monty had a TERRIBLE game plan against the zone. For the whole game, we were really vanilla in how we tried to attack, pretty much cycling between recycling the 3 guards on the perimeter (cut down to the FT line, then recycle weak side) and alternating flashes from low to high post. I figure there were a few problems with this approach:
(1) We didn’t make the defense move: by continually passing the ball around the perimeter, the defense never has to move/react. They can play strong defense on the strong side while still shading out to the weakside, because
(2) We never established a credible threat in the high post. We had some nice H/L action from Solo/Kravish to Thurman/Solo, but we also had 5+ of those passes tipped. I think we were too plain in our action to get the ball to the high post: we camped a big there, but were not super aggressive in flashing from the weakside.
(3) We didn’t use the corner enough: one of the ways to create good entry angles to the high post is to position someone in the corner, someone on the wing, and then flash someone to the high post. Both corner/wing defenders are occupied, so there’s usually a pocket. I don’t think we used this option enough
(4) We couldn’t beat the first level on dribble penetration. It would have made our lives SOOOOO much easier if Cobbs (or anyone) had beaten the first defenders and gotten into the lane, or at least the FT line. Unfortunately, they couldn’t."

Will the game plan and execution be different this time around?

Projected Starters:

C DaJuan Coleman(So), 6'9, 280 lbs, 6.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg
F Rakeem Christmas(Jr), 6'9, 250 lbs, 4.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg
F C.J. Fair(Sr), 6'8, 215 lbs, 18 ppg, 5.5 rpg
G Trevor Cooney(So), 6'4, 195 lbs, 12.8 ppg, 3.0 spg
G Tyler Ennis(Fr), 6'2, 180 lbs, 7.8 ppg, 3.8 apg


F Jerami Grant(So), 6'8, 210 lbs, 11.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg
Baye Keita(Sr), 6'10, 220 lbs
G Michael Gbinije(So), 6'7, 200 lbs
Tyler Roberson(Fr), 6'8, 212 lbs
B.J. Johnson(Fr), 6'7, 185 lbs
Ron Patterson(Fr), 6'2, 200 lbs

C.J. Fair is their steadiest player and most reliable scorer. He does most of his work inside the arc, but can also punish you from deep. Some publications have tabbed him as the ACC preseason player of the year. DaJuan Coleman was limited last year by a knee injury. He's a former McDonald's All-American who is a load to handle in the paint. Rakeem Christmas is more of a defense and rebounding specialist. He hurt the Bears last year on the offensive glass. Trevor Cooney is their best three point shooter and has been a disruptive force in the passing lanes. True frosh Tyler Ennis has been described as having a "European" game. He's clever with the ball and displays good vision and passing ability. His shot has been inconsistent, however. Jerami Grant is their 6th man and actually plays more minutes than Christmas or Coleman. He's another long-armed terror inside.

Key Matchups:

1) Ball Movement vs. the Zone

The classic strategy to beat the zone is to have a guy flash to the middle, force the defense to rotate, then pass to the open man for a shot or drive. Syracuse knows this. They know you know they know this. And it doesn't matter. Their pterodactyl-armed defenders are ready to pounce or tip any wayward passes. Ideally, we penetrate, flash, and pass the ball well enough to get ourselves better shots. Failing that, we at least need to avoid turning the ball over to ignite their transition game.

Kravish would seem to be the perfect guy for the high post. Unfortunately, he had a really rough game against Oakland and repeatedly fumbled away entry passes. A strong game from him could be huge for our offense.

We'll also need to do a better job with dribble penetration. Last year, Cobbs, Kreklow, and Wallace were unable to get past the first defender to force the defense to react.

2) Cobbs vs. Ennis

This is a matchup that the Bears will need to dominate in order to have a chance. Cobbs had a rough game against Syracuse last time around. We'll have to hope that his leg is healthy and he'll be able to break down the defense with both his outside shooting and his dribble penetration.

3) Bird/Wallace/Kreklow vs. Fair

This is a tough, tough matchup for Jabari on the defensive end. Fair is a great athlete and a versatile scorer. For Bird to stay on the court, he can't let Fair abuse him. I wouldn't be surprised to see Monty start Wallace on Fair and have Kreklow relieve him as needed.

4) Team Rebounding

Syracuse is not a great shooting team, but they can send waves of athletes to crash the offensive glass. We can't afford to give them anything easy.

5) Solo/Kravish vs. the Zebras

We need to keep both of our bigs on the court as often as possible. Going to a single post is problematic and I don't know that Rooks, Behrens, or Moute a Bidias are ready to play extended minutes against a team like Syracuse. We'll need our veteran bigs to play smart and stay out of foul trouble.

This is one of those measuring stick games and the potential to put a "quality" win on our resume. Let's go take it.

Go Bears!

Tip-Off: 4 pm
Television: ESPN
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