March 29, 2003
By JIM O'CONNELL
AP Basketball Writer
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - One team plays tough man-to-man defense, stifling teams on the perimeter.
The other goes almost strictly with a 2-3 zone, something most teams just don't get a chance to play against to learn its weaknesses.
Whether top-seeded Oklahoma, which guards outside as well as any team in the country, or third-seeded Syracuse, which has been sitting in the zone for years, wins Sunday's East Regional final, the game will be won with defense.
"That is one of the best defensive teams I've ever seen," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Saturday of the Sooners (27-6), who allow an average of 59.9 points per game. "Pittsburgh's a very good defensive team in our league, but Oklahoma is even better, and that's why they're a one seed."
Oklahoma held Butler to 4-of-13 shooting from 3-point range in its 65-54 regional semifinal win. It wasn't the percentage that was impressive, rather that the Bulldogs usually get off about twice as many 3-pointers.
Then there's what Syracuse (27-5) does.
"They've run it forever. It's not easy to prepare for," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said of the zone that has opponents shooting just 38 percent overall and 30 percent from 3-point range. "If they're in your conference it's a little more adaptable, but out of conference we don't play anybody who plays zone more than situational. We're going to have to attack it intelligently and make shots."
There will still be plenty of offense to enjoy as the Sooners try to advance to the Final Four for a second straight year, while the Orangemen attempt to get there for the first time since 1996.
Oklahoma keys around the veteran backcourt of seniors Hollis Price, Quannas White and Ebi Ere. Syracuse has forward Carmelo Anthony, the second-leading freshman scorer in the country, whose teammates have stepped up in the NCAA tournament.
"Their perimeter guys are tremendous, what more can you say?" Boeheim asked. "They're great defenders, and they all shoot the ball."
Oklahoma is hitting 3s at a 51 percent clip in the tournament, but the key to scoring against the zone is going inside, and freshman Kevin Bookout has led the Sooners in scoring in the tournament with a 12.7 average.
"He's 17-for-21 from the field in the tournament," Sampson said of the 6-foot-8 Bookout. "We know we have to get him the ball to open things up."
Auburn's Marquis Daniels had most of his 27 points inside against Syracuse's zone Friday before the outside shots started falling late, and the Tigers lost 79-78.
"The second half, Auburn certainly didn't have any problem with the zone," Boeheim said. "Defense is defense. Good defenses are hard to play against. If you're going to win games, you have to have a good defense, whatever it may be."
Oklahoma's man-to-man will get a big test from Anthony, the 6-8 forward who may be playing in his first and last NCAA tournament if he heads for the NBA, as many expect him to.
"We don't match up with him, but then again I don't know who does," Sampson said. "He's the LeBron James of college basketball, except maybe a better player. What does LeBron James that Carmelo Anthony doesn't do?"
Anthony, who averages 22 points per game, has struggled in the first half of the Orangemen's three tournament victories. He had two of his 13 points in the first 20 minutes against Oklahoma State, and all 18 against Auburn came in the second half.
"I struggled in the first half against Manhattan in the opener and told my team I owed them a good half," Anthony said. "I wasn't about to let the season end because of me."
Boeheim interjected quickly.
"You're about due for a good first half, aren't you?" he asked.
Boeheim said some of the problem is a lack of patience, and that Anthony can rely too much on his jump shot.
"Still, he is very valuable even without scoring because he rebounds and draws people to him," he said.
Defense aside, there's the matter of where the game is being played. Albany is about 2 hours from the Syracuse campus, and most of the crowd of 15,000-plus at Pepsi Arena will be wearing something orange.
"This obviously is going to be a road game because it's in Albany, N.Y., and it will be a pro-, pro-, pro-Syracuse crowd," Sampson said. "We'll have 1,250 people here. It's just too far for us to have our fans here. It's their advantage. I'm not sitting here complaining about it. We're in Albany, N.Y. We're from Oklahoma. They're from Syracuse, N.Y. They're going to have a huge, huge crowd, and that will be an advantage for them."