The Strategy Behind Syracuse’s Epic Comeback

Jim Boeheim didn’t hold back after his team knocked off Virginia thanks to an incredible second half rally.

“This is the best comeback I’ve seen at Syracuse,” he said. “I haven’t been there forever, but in 52 years, this is the best comeback we’ve ever had.”

Well, then.

So what makes yesterday’s comeback standout?

First, being down 16 points in the second half is a tough mountain to climb no matter who you’re playing. Doing so against No. 1 seeded Virginia — whose style of play makes crawling back from that large of a deficit nearly impossible — is quite another. In fact, the Cavaliers had never lost under Coach Tony Bennett when leading by more than 10 points at halftime. Well, until yesterday.

When you’re losing by 16 to Virginia, you don’t have nearly as many possessions to catch up as you would against any other team. The Cavs’ slowed down pace forces the opponent to play defense for excruciatingly long possession after long possession. On the other end of the floor, Virginia’s superb team defense makes it tough to get a quick basket and you might as well forget getting a clean look to score. The completeness of their team is enough to concern the best teams in the country.

Syracuse is a fine team but no one — up to this point — would consider them to be great. Boeheim certainly realized the tall order it would take to knock off UVA. “You’re playing Virginia, who’s completely dominated us three times. I mean, let’s face it.” Before yesterday, there was no evidence that Syracuse was anywhere near UVA’s level. Key words: before yesterday.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. Boeheim and Syracuse are more closely identified to their preferred defensive strategy — the 2–3 zone — than any other program in the nation. Over the course of his career, Boeheim’s reluctance to switch up defenses has probably cost Syracuse some games it could — or maybe even should — have won.

Yesterday, that old, faithful 2–3 zone had the Orange down by 16 in the second half. But this time Boeheim changed it up. Syracuse surprised everybody by going to a full-court press and turned the game completely around.

“They attacked it, and if they hit a couple on those right away, it would have been a 20-point game,” he said. “But you have to take your chance. It doesn’t matter whether you lose by 7 or 20; it’s still you’re going home.”

Slowly but surely, the Virginia lead began to shrink. Freshman Malachi Richardson decided to play the hero by hitting several impossible looking three-pointers. Virginia — possibly rattled from Syracuse’s defensive pressure — uncharacteristically turned the ball four times in the final 10 minutes of the game. Meanwhile, the Orange made all seven of their field goal attempts from the time they went to the press until they had overtaken the lead.

“They made plays that were, that you would think from a basketball perspective could not be made, and they made them,” Boeheim said.

Any follower of the NCAA Tournament knows that you need luck to go your way if you want to win it all. Sometimes, though, that luck is self-made. Syracuse proved that by speeding Virginia up and putting themselves in position to cash in on that luck.

Syracuse is the first 10 seed to make it to the Final Four, but don’t call the Orange an underdog. This is a big time program with a big time coach and — if yesterday is any evidence of what’s to come — Syracuse won’t be afraid to break from the norm if that’s what it takes.

The Orange will likely need every trick in their bag if they want to knock off the juggernaut that is North Carolina on Saturday. However, the comeback over Virginia suggests that the Tar Heels would be wise to be prepared for anything.

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A lucky man. Also a lawyer. Classic oxymoron.

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