Ohio State and Syracuse in a zone

Ohio State (30-7) at Syracuse (34-2), 7:05 p.m. EDT

One of the old axioms of college basketball is that you play zone against a team that plays zone.

Syracuse, which plays the best zone defense in the sport right now, has struggled recently against zones.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who on Saturday will be the next coach to try and solve the 2-3 when his second-seeded Buckeyes (30-7) meet the top-seeded Orange (34-2) with a berth in the Final Four at stake, was asked if he was thinking of trying to play zone against a zone.

“Not really. We’re into Game 30, whatever it is. We kind of are who we are from that standpoint to be honest with you,” he said Friday. “Going against a zone this week – we felt like Cincinnati was going to play us like they did last night, the first half zone, and thought there was a chance we’d play Syracuse, so we went against zone in practice and left with a ton of confidence on offense because the zone was so bad. So we’re not going to do that.”

Syracuse’s zone is far from bad, even when it’s far from perfect.

Wisconsin pounded the zone with 14 3-pointers in the 64-63 East Regional semifinal loss to the Orange, but came up short down the stretch.

“I heard, I don’t know when it was, a couple years ago, whatever, and I thought it was the greatest answer I’ve ever heard from Coach Boeheim,” Matta recounted. “Somebody asked him what do you do when somebody gets really hot against your zone and they’re making 3s? He said `How do you know they’re not going to make them against man-to-man?’ I think he has his philosophy, and he’s only won 900 or however many games he’s won. It works for him.

“Watching that game last night, he struck true to what he’s done. Fourteen 3s, you might say, `Hey, that’s good enough to get the job done.’ Last night it wasn’t.”

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim hasn’t won 900 games. He’s won 890, third on the all-time Division I list behind Mike Krzyzyewski and Bob Knight. The win over Wisconsin was his 48th in the NCAA tournament, breaking a tie for fifth place with former UCLA coach John Wooden.

Boeheim gave a quick clinic Friday about the zone.

“There’s a few advantages to playing zone,” he said. “I mean, we play zone because we think it’s our best defense overall to win the game. But at the end of games, you’ll see at least half the time in a close game, there’s a foul called on a drive to the basket because that’s what people will do. They’ll try to get to the basket and they’ll foul because you’re playing man to man. Very seldom is somebody going to go to the foul line and beat us. That almost never happens.”

It didn’t Thursday night. Wisconsin’s final shot at the win was a long 3-pointer by Jordan Taylor because the Badgers couldn’t move the ball quickly enough to get an open look.

Ohio State’s 81-66 semifinal win over Cincinnati didn’t come down to the final possession because the Buckeyes rallied from a bad stretch early in the second half to pull away behind forwards Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas, who combined for 49 points and 18 rebounds.

The lone statistic that Ohio State and Syracuse aren’t very close in is rebounding. The Buckeyes own a 7.6 rebound advantage per game over their opponents this season while Syracuse averages 1.4 less than its opponents, one of the worst figures among the teams that made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

The Orange are at more of a disadvantage up front with the loss of 7-foot Fab Melo, who was declared ineligible by the school just days before the NCAA tournament began. His place has been taken by freshman Rakeem Christmas and sophomore Baye Keita, who have combined for 22 points and 25 rebounds in the three tournament games.

“With Fab Melo out, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, obviously that’s a big-time loss,” said Sullinger, who was a first-team All-America as a freshman last season. “I’ve known Rakeem ever since we was young in AAU, so I know Rakeem likes to block shots, and he’s physical. And Baye, he’s a good shot blocker. So I just know it’s going to be a very physical game. Whoever wins this game is going to be in the Final Four, so everybody is going to give it their all.”

Ohio State is trying to get to the Final Four for the 10th time – 1999 was vacated for NCAA violations – with its last appearance in 2007.

Syracuse is looking for its fifth trip to the Final Four and first since the Orange won their only national championship in 2003, in New Orleans.

“These players, this is what they do. They want to play in this game. There shouldn’t be any pressure. Just go out and play,” Boeheim said. “If you’re the best team, you win. … You get to this level in this tournament, there’s nobody that can’t beat you. Nobody.”