Pitt zoning in on Syracuse defense

Michael Carter-Williams (left) and C.J. Fair are key parts of Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense.  (Getty Images)
Michael Carter-Williams (left) and C.J. Fair are key parts of Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense. (Getty Images)
Photo by Getty Images
Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

If you're waiting for Pitt to fire 3-point shots over Syracuse's famous 2-3 zone defense, you haven't been paying attention.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has no problem scoring in 3-point chunks, but he prefers his players stick to a higher percentage attempt. Pitt was 11th in the nation in field-goal percentage (49.2) to start the week before losing at Louisville on Monday.

So, when the sixth-ranked Orange bring their share of the Big East lead to the Petersen Events Center on Saturday, Dixon will try to attack the zone with a variety of tactics.

Pitt (17-5, 5-4) won't beat Syracuse (18-2, 6-1) without every aspect of its game functioning well.

“We have to get penetration, we have to get offensive rebounds, we have to make some 3s, we have to get the big guys touches,” he said. “It's not going to be one thing.”

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who is second in Division I basketball with 908 victories, seldom has wavered from his paint-protecting 2-3 zone that invites teams to shoot 3s.

“It's not something we want to live by,” said junior forward Lamar Patterson, who leads the Panthers in 3-point percentage (39.2), but attempts only 3.3 per game.

Dixon has been around Boeheim long enough ­— in big games, at coaching clinics and in informal basketball gab sessions — to know what Syracuse is trying to do with its zone.

“Syracuse's thinking is you are not going to hit enough 3s in 40 minutes, if that's what you are going to rely on. We never have (relied on it),” said Dixon, who is 9-3 all-time against Boeheim. “I think that's been a strength of ours.”

Dixon noted that Boeheim, in his 37th season at Syracuse, was a supporter of moving the 3-point line back 1 foot to 20 feet, 9 inches four years ago.

“For obvious reasons,” Dixon said.

With a more difficult 3-point shot, Boeheim can pack his zone tighter around the basket, increasing its effectiveness. The scheme is sound, and the moving parts make it work.

“It's the players, first and foremost,” Dixon said. “They obviously have players that everybody recruited and knew about and were well aware of.”

The key is the size of their guards: 6-foot-6 Michael Carter-Williams and 6-4 Brandon Triche.

“That makes it harder to penetrate, harder to reverse the ball, harder to get interior touches,” Dixon said.

Syracuse, which had an eight-game winning streak broken last Saturday at Villanova, will play Pitt with only seven scholarship players after losing DaJuan Coleman to knee surgery and James Southerland to ineligibility.

Dixon takes no solace in those absences, with Triche (14.9 points per game), C.J. Fair (13.6) and Carter-Williams (12.6) playing well.

“The three guys who score the points are going to be out there,” he said.

Notes: Football coach Paul Chryst will welcome 35 high school junior prospects to his first “Junior Day,” one of the biggest of its kind in school history. “It's a good way for us to get to know the kids and the kids to get to know us,” recruiting coordinator Dann Kabela said. ... Pitt is encouraging fans to wear gold clothing as part of a “Gold Out” promotion at Petersen Events Center.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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