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What if ... IU had solved Syracuse’s zone in 2013?

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Who knew Syracuse played a 2-3 zone! Not me!

Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories revisiting the biggest what-ifs in IU history.

The only NCAA tournament pool I’ve ever won was in 2013, when I was the only one out of the 41 people – shoutout to the now-defunct IUSportCom dot com – who didn’t pick IU to win the national championship.

I picked Louisville. (Just like the Cardinals, I’ve since vacated my ESPN Tournament Challenge win, don’t worry.)

According to ESPN, 17.9 percent of the 8.15 million bracket entries in 2013 picked the Hoosiers to win it all, making IU the second-most popular national champion – behind Louisville (21.9%) and ahead of Miami (FL) at 10.7%.

What 17.9 percent of the sports-watching country didn’t know was that IU would be unable to navigate Syracuse’s b̶r̶a̶n̶d̶-̶n̶e̶w̶,̶ ̶n̶e̶v̶e̶r̶-̶b̶e̶f̶o̶r̶e̶-̶s̶e̶e̶n̶ 2-3 zone defense.

The Hoosiers shot 40 percent on twos, 20 percent on 3s and 62 percent from the free throw line and lost by 11, barely finishing with 50 points – their lowest output of the season.

Their starting backcourt of Yogi Ferrell and Jordan Hulls had offensive ratings of seven and 15, respectively, according to kenpom.com. An offensive rating of 100 or so is roughly average.

Neither player scored.

[Barack Obama voice] Let me be clear,,,

IU was completely overmatched in this specific matchup on that specific night, so it’s not like a bounce here or there could’ve potentially given the Hoosiers the win.

Twelve different bounces wouldn’t have changed the final result.

IU scored just five points in the opening 10 minutes, 11 points through the first 16-plus minutes.

That means this What if ... will have to be focused on the game plan and execution, maybe a roster spot or two, and then the alternate universe after IU makes the Final Four or something.

I rewatched the Syracuse game because I’m a sports masochist and after a month indoors I just wanted to feel something again, and hoo buddy, averaging a turnover per minute and a point every minute and a half for the first 11 minutes of the game tells you all you need to know.

On the old YouTube stream I was watching, someone doing a studio report during a timeout gave us this gem, “When you have more turnovers than points, you’re not doing very well.”

Here’s an exchange on the broadcast that happened about a minute and a half of game time after the screenshot above was taken:

Verne Lundquist: “Well, Tom Crean telling us yesterday, they do have plan B, C, D and E.”

Bill Raftery: “You know what, you’re going to have to use all of them, too.”

Verne Lundquist: “They might want to have plan F ready.”

Jokes aside, I am genuinely curious as to what IU’s adjustments were for Syracuse.

What were plans B, C, D and E?

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

I’m no basketball coach, but I’d like to think I’ve watched enough Hoop Vision videos to have a competent understanding of basic sets, motions, counters and the like.

On too many possessions, the plan was seemingly to swing the ball around the perimeter and hope for a passing lane to open up to Cody Zeller or Victor Oladipo, who would share the responsibility of flashing to the high post.

The few times IU ran a second cut off of an initial high-post cut, gaps often appeared in the Syracuse zone due to slow rotations.

Bill Raftery suggested IU set a high screen on Michael Carter-Williams or Brandon Triche at the top of Syracuse’s zone, which would theoretically make it easier for IU’s 6-foot guards to operate and see over the Orange’s tall backcourt. That screen-setter role seems perfect for Christian Watford, a 48-percent 3-point shooter who could set a flare screen and pop out to the 3-point line.

There wasn’t enough high-low action with, say, Oladipo at the free throw line and Zeller on the block.

Transition opportunities were few and far between.

Or maybe what happened that March in the nation’s capital is as simple as recognizing that the team that shot 52 percent from the field in its five previous NCAA tournament games in 2012 and 2013 may have met its kryptonite.

Maybe Yogi Ferrell and Jordan Hulls were just too short.

Maybe Hulls’ separated shoulder never gave IU’s offense a fighting chance.

Maybe Christian Watford’s foot speed was too slow to match up with Syracuse’s athletic frontcourt.

Maybe an IU freshman class that logged 30 minutes in the game, combining to score zero points on 0-for-3 shooting with three rebounds, two assists and five turnovers was full of missed evaluations or the wrong personalities, and could’ve used a 6-foot-4, five-star shooting guard from Fishers.

(If you know any inside details about what unfolded with The Movement, DM me.)

Maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, Tom Crean should’ve kept a roster spot for a 6-3, veteran shooter who made 54 percent of his 3s in 2012.

For all intents and purposes, the fate of the Tom Crean era at Indiana was arguably sealed on March 28, 2013. From then until its official end on March 16, 2017, every IU basketball conversation that went on long enough – on Twitter, on message boards or at a bar – included the same familiar refrains, for right or wrong.

“The Syracuse game” or “He couldn’t beat a 2-3 zone.”

The Sir, this is a Wendy’s drive-thru meme was probably invented five years too late because it could’ve gotten some real run in the mid-2010s, given how frequently those lines were spewed, often in fairly unrelated contexts.

Forget that Syracuse has made a habit of taking some of its good-not-great, or even pedestrian, teams and knocking off some of the best teams in the country in March.

(See: No. 10 seed Syracuse beating No. 1 seed Virginia in the Elite Eight in 2016, No. 11 seed Syracuse knocking off No. 3 seed Michigan State in 2018)

There’s just something about IU losing in that manner to that team that plays that defense with its best team of the Crean era (and the best IU team this century?).

Had IU beaten Syracuse, which, once again, wasn’t close to happening and is purely hypothetical for this exercise, Crean would’ve had a reunion with Marquette in the Elite Eight. It was a Marquette team that ended up scoring just 39 against Syracuse, making IU’s 50 points feel like 100.

Michigan, a team that IU swept in the regular season, would’ve been waiting in the Final Four if the Hoosiers had advanced that far.

With a Final Four appearance in 2013, IU basketball is officially back.

Not Bannerz-back, but close.

That means no more played-out thinkpieces about why IU can’t escape the shadow of Bob Knight, no more talk about the old days or debates about the geographic footprint of IU basketball’s recruiting base or even that of the university’s student body at large.

Tom Crean’s idiosyncrasies now become kind of lovable. The pants that never seem to fit and the Diet Coke that’s always within an arm’s reach are now just part of what fuels a coach with a penchant for free-flowing offenses and the ability to unearth a few under-the-radar recruits every decade and turn them into top NBA prospects.

A lot of what comes out of Dabo Swinney’s mouth probably hits differently if Clemson is going 8-5 in the ACC Atlantic on an annual basis and not winning national titles.

The much-lampooned Sweet 16 rings from 2012 and the cutting of the nets after a home loss on senior night in 2013 are now distant memories after a hypothetical Final Four or national runner-up finish.

But it’s also likely that whatever IU’s 2013 season could’ve been wouldn’t have been sustainable. IU lost too much that offseason – too much talent, too much experience, too many players who worked too hard to bring the program back from a six-win campaign in 2009.

Does a Final Four run allow IU to add another blue-chip recruit or two in the next few years?

Maybe.

But IU still enrolled a top-five class in 2013 and even a less-heralded class in 2015 still produced OG Anunoby, Thomas Bryant and Juwan Morgan.

Inconsistent roster building, off-the-court issues, too many turnovers and too little defense plagued the next few years of the Tom Crean era.

A Final Four run in 2013 rather than a Sweet 16 exit doesn’t make those issues disappear.

Instead, it would’ve shown the ceiling of what is possible when Crean had his ideal roster and a future NBA All-Star on the wing, kind of like his Dwyane Wade-led Final Four run at Marquette.

Maybe the goodwill from 2013 would’ve led to another extension with an even bigger buyout and Crean coaches IU through 2018 or 2019, with a recent roadmap to the Final Four fueling the hope of a second and a third appearance.

Who knows what would’ve happened if IU had solved Syracuse’s zone defense in 2013.

A narrow victory over No. 9 seed Temple in the second round and an ugly Sweet 16 loss prevented IU from getting even halfway to a national title, so it’s unrealistic for us to hang the hologram of Banner #6 from the rafters of Assembly Hall in this blog post.

If anything, a win that night in D.C. would’ve provided tangible proof – at least for a year or two – that IU basketball was back, more so than the preseason No. 1 ranking, Sports Illustrated covers or two top-four NBA draft picks ever could.

It would have prevented four years of exasperated IU fans using the same refrains in conversations where they didn’t belong, as they forgot, or chose to ignore, the unpredictable, cruel, beautiful nature that is a 68-team, single-elimination tournament and how it can leave you heartbroken.

A Sweet 16 loss as a No. 1 seed doesn’t hurt as bad if you’re contending for a No. 1 seed every other year. It really stings when that’s your last, best chance for a title.

Short of a national title in 2013, which we’ve already ruled out, a win over Syracuse likely doesn’t reframe the rest of the decade for IU basketball or the rest of the Crean era.

If anything, more success in the 2013 NCAA Tournament may have made the reality of missing the 2014 NCAA Tournament and the player arrests over the next few seasons even more jarring, leaving IU basketball in the exact same place it found itself after a cold-shooting night in D.C. left its small guards feeling even smaller.