SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Jim Boeheim's teams at Syracuse have thrived on their zone defense for decades, using long, athletic players to disrupt opposing offenses to the tune of more than 900 wins and a national title.
California coach Mike Montgomery has been more of a proponent of man-to-man defense during his stellar coaching career, using the zone more as an occasional changeup than a base defense.
Montgomery has even jokingly mocked his friend, Boeheim, over the years for his reliance on the 2-3 zone.
So Boeheim got a piece of vindication when he saw the 12th-seeded Golden Bears (21-11) stay almost exclusively in a zone defense in a win over UNLV that set up a matchup with No. 4 seed Syracuse (27-9) in the third round of the NCAA tournament Saturday.
"He's a man-to-man coach, he always has been," Boeheim said Friday. "But I've always said if you don't have some zone just in your pocket, I don't think you're smart. For a long time there were a lot of coaches that weren't very smart. But now most of them I guess are because pretty much everybody has some zone."
Few teams have played it better over the years than the Orange. Boeheim recruits big, athletic wing players who can close out quickly on shooters and the players are so well-versed in the defense because they rarely play, or practice, anything else.
This year's squad has been one of Boeheim's best defensively, with the Orange ranking third in the nation in field goal defense (37 percent) and 10th in 3-point defense (29 percent).
"They know exactly what they're trying to do," Montgomery said. "They know exactly what the rules are as far as where they're not going to let the ball go and why. It makes it very effective. When you do something 35 times a year, 40 minutes a game for 30 years, somebody has got it figured out. And they've been successful with it."
The defense has been a staple all season for the Orange, who overcame a rough patch in February against a brutal Big East schedule to play perhaps their best basketball of the season during the tournaments in March.
With James Southerland, C.J. Fair and Brandon Triche finding their stroke from the outside, Syracuse has gotten back on track after losing four of five games to end the regular season. The losses all came to teams — Louisville, Georgetown (twice) and Marquette — that got top-three seeds in the NCAA tournament after sharing the Big East regular-season crown.
It started to change when the Orange won three games at the Big East tournament in New York before losing the final to Louisville. That momentum carried over to the NCAA tournament opener when Syracuse beat Montana 81-34 for the second-most lopsided tournament win in school history.
"I believe we also have our confidence back, our swagger back from the early part of the season, after losing a little bit and struggling," Triche said. "We've been struggling, even though we've been winning, we've been struggling offensively. We haven't really been playing our game. Until Big East, that's the only time we've actually been playing good offensively and good as a team."
As well as the Orange played in the opener, they know they will have to contend with a lot more on Saturday against the Bears, including what is expected to be a partisan crowd less than 50 miles south of the Cal campus in Berkeley.
The hometown fans — and zone defense — helped pull Cal to a 64-61 win Thursday over fifth-seeded UNLV. It should be even louder on Saturday with a trip to the East Regional semifinals in Washington, D.C., on the line.
Fellow Pac-12 team Oregon is playing the early game in San Jose against St. Louis and both schools are encouraging their fans to cheer for their conference brethren on Saturday.
"I really do except an even bigger turnout," forward David Kravish said. "I hope it's big Pac-12 country tomorrow. It's funny how you spend half the year beating up each other but once it's over you're rooting for each other. It's like day and night. We want to get it for the Pac-12. We're expecting to get a chance to watch Oregon for a little bit."
The Orange have been on the other side of this equation twice in the past decade, winning four tournament games played in upstate New York, including a regional final win over Oklahoma in 2003 in Albany on the way to the national championship.
Syracuse hasn't played a virtual tournament road game since 2000, when the Orange lost to eventual champion Michigan State 75-58 in Auburn Hills, Mich., in the round of 16.
The Orange lost five of their final six true road games, including a 61-39 defeat at Georgetown in the regular-season finale. Syracuse did beat No. 1 overall tournament seed Louisville on the road in January and took tournament teams Villanova and Marquette to the wire in losses.
"This is California, so the team from the University of California (is) going to have about 90 percent of their fans here," Southerland said. "I feel like it's not going to be much of a problem for us. It shouldn't be, because we played in great games like Arkansas and Louisville and pulled out a team with a No. 1 seed. So we are just going to focus on what we need to do."