Men's basketball

Trio of big men bring defensive presence to Syracuse’s 2-3 zone early in season

Nate Shron | Staff Photographer

They stand a combined 244 inches tall and weigh a combined 745 pounds. Together they take turns manning the middle of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, a menacing trio of speed, athleticism and power that few teams around the country can match.

Their goal is simple: Block every shot attempted by an opponent in the paint. And as their offensive games develop, that defensive mindset will be their calling card.

“I think the biggest thing is that we have to be great defensively,” Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins said after practice on Tuesday. “We have to take charges. Fab (Melo) impacted the game last year by being great defensively and having a presence down low and letting them know that you’re not going to get easy layups, you’re not going to get easy shots.”

Occupying the center of the paint, the place Melo dwelled last season, are Rakeem Christmas, Baye Moussa Keita and freshman DaJuan Coleman. Together they put forth a stifling defensive effort in a season-opening win against San Diego State, blocking a combined six shots. Up next is Wagner (0-1) at the Carrier Dome at 1 p.m. on Sunday, and these three underclassmen will continue to fuel the Orange (1-0) defense against a team with only one player taller than 6-foot-8.

“What you want to try to do early in the year is really get them to buy into the defensive end of the court,” Hopkins said.

For Christmas and Moussa Keita that has meant a continued education of the 2-3 zone system and adapting to the absence of Melo, who took home Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors last season. And for Coleman that has meant a crash course in the intricacies of rotations while learning both the wing and center positions.

Last Sunday against the Aztecs, Coleman took the next step in his progression by starting at the center position. He and Christmas, who manned the middle of the zone at the start of both exhibition games, switched positions, allowing the 6-foot-9, 288-pound freshman to patrol the paint — a position that Hopkins said he and the rest of the coaching staff see as the logical fit for Coleman.

“It felt good,” Coleman said on playing the center position. “I’ve been used to it since high school. We played a little zone, plus I’ve been playing the five in practice.”

He quickly got into foul trouble on Sunday against the Aztecs, but Hopkins was pleased with his effort on the both ends of the floor. And his activeness on offense — he was in prime position for two tip-ins, though he missed one — was a positive sign.

Equally impressive was the defensive aggressiveness exuded by Christmas and Moussa Keita. Hopkins called Christmas the “athletic, physical man” and Moussa Keita the “active, quick, intelligent player,” and together they frustrated San Diego State’s players from start to finish.

Christmas tallied five blocks by himself on Sunday, and Keita chipped in with a block of his own. Keita had a second block waived off after he was whistled for a foul after chasing down Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State’s best player, which he insisted on Thursday was a clean play.

“It goes back to confidence and knowing that he can make plays defensively,” Hopkins said.

The next step for Syracuse’s three big men is to add to their defensive repertoire. Part of Melo’s defensive prowess last season was his incredible ability to take charges. When coupled with his shot blocking, the 2-3 zone defense became dynamic.

Keita said he and his two fellow interior players were disappointed when they failed to take a charge against the Aztecs. So when Coleman stepped up and drew a charge on C.J. Fair in practice on Tuesday, the entire team — guards, coaches and forwards — cheered and applauded.

While the defense is their calling card, their offense remains a work in progress. For now, Hopkins said relying on Fair, Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams can benefit the team as the young big men continue to develop.

Eventually, as the guards and wings attract the attention of opposing defenses, opportunities for the interior players to contribute offensively will present themselves. It’s only a matter of time.

Said Coleman: “The thing is we’re going to keep getting better.”

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