In the Zone



As March Madness approaches, many teams find themselves scrambling to solidify their places in the NCAA Tournament. Two teams – Kentucky and Syracuse – know exactly where they stand: at the top of the class. The #1 and #2-ranked teams in the country, respectively, barring some kind of disaster, will both receive 1-seeds to the Big Dance.

The Wildcats and Orangemen have been the two most consistent teams in America this year, and clearly set themselves apart from the rest of the field. Both rosters feature great mixes of youth, talent, experience, and athleticism, and multiple future NBA draft picks.

Interestingly, despite the offensive firepower of each squad, it is their defensive prowess that has each of them with just one loss apiece on their resumes, looking like favorites to win the National Championship. Kentucky head coach John Calipari, (especially in recent years), has been known for stacking his rosters with All-American talent and using the dribble-drive offense. This season, the Wildcats’ formula is built around airtight pressure man-to-man defense, not concerned so much with generating steals or turnovers, rather simply getting stops and making the other team work for whatever they get.

Going by the numbers, the Wildcats have to 10th-ranked scoring defense in the nation, holding opponents to just 58 points per game. This is a result of them having the top-ranked field goal percentage defense in the nation, allowing them to stifle teams to 36.2 percent shooting from the field. The Wildcats lead the country in blocks per game, as well, at 9.3 per contest.

This is by far Calipari’s best defensive team in his three-year tenure at Kentucky, and perhaps the best of his career. The key catalyst is freshman Anthony Davis, who leads the country in blocks per game (4.2). The Chicago-native is a leading candidate for National Player of The Year, and lock for Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. With sophomore forward Terrence Jones beside him, and guards Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and freshman sensation Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in front of him, it’s no doubt, a team effort.

Over East in Syracuse, the Orangemen are playing head coach Jon Boeheim‘s patented 2-3 zone, as has been the case for the past three decades. However, this year’s version has been labeled by many as the most impressive, and the Orangemen have left every opponent feeling blue. Check what the numbers have to say: Syracuse possesses the 34th-ranked defense in the country, giving up a mere 60.8 points per game; that’s a result of their 12th-ranked field goal percentage defense, which keeps teams shooting 38.5 percent per night. Most impressive is that the Orangemen are third in the country in steals (9.9) and blocks (7.1).

Like Kentucky, they’ve got a man in the middle anchoring the whole operation. Sophomore Fab Melo has patrolled the paint all season for Syracuse, and his 3 blocks per night are 13th-best in the nation. Unlike Kentucky, who don’t gamble for too many steals, Syracuse thrives off of them. Typically, teams play 2-3 zones as a way to hide their deficiencies. Syracuse, however, uses it as a weapon, generating steals, letting guards Scoop Jardine, Dion Waters, Brandon Triche and forward Kris Joseph, turning them into fast-break opportunities.

While other teams may match the talent Syracuse and Kentucky have, few have shown their ability to clamp down like they have. After all, it’s defense that wins championships, right?