Aztecs look to break Syracuse’s suffocating 2-3 zone defense


San Diego State has lost big to Syracuse on both coasts, first in the spacious Carrier Dome in upstate New York and then on the flight deck of a decommissioned aircraft carrier on San Diego’s waterfront, where the wind blowing off the nearby Pacific Ocean altered the course of the 3-pointers the Aztecs launched futilely over the Orange’s shutdown 2-3 zone defense.

Now the Aztecs, the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region, will face the 11th-seeded Orange in the heartland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night. Coach Brian Dutcher thinks the setting in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis will be much kinder to the Aztecs against the relentless defense favored by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.

“Obviously I like it, going against a zone team, the backdrops will be shorter,” Dutcher said. “We won’t be playing in a dome, so any advantage we can get, I’m looking forward to taking. I think the backdrops there will be better-suited to go against a zone team. It’ll be way better suited than playing on an aircraft carrier, I can tell you that.”

Ah yes, the aircraft carrier game. Although the players from that game on Nov. 11, 2012, have long since moved on, neither program will ever forget the unique setting and how it dramatically affected the game.

The Aztecs and a local sports commission were able to coax the Orange into to a rare non-conference foray outside of Syracuse for a game played on the flight deck of the USS Midway, which is now a museum. The game was supposed to have been played on a Friday evening, but the threat of rain forced it to be moved back two days to Sunday afternoon.

It was played under a brilliant sun. Also present was an unwelcome wind, which, combined with the tightest 2-3 zone Boeheim recalls the Orange playing, made for a miserable afternoon for the home team. The Aztecs launched 18 3-pointers, making just one. They struggled from 10 feet out as well, making just 14 of 33 free throws.

Syracuse was bigger and had the advantage of playing at the rim. SDSU wasn’t as lucky. The Orange won 62-49.

“When the game started, the wind picked up a little bit. We made a 3 early … so we got a little bit of a lead, but then the wind picked up more and you really couldn’t make a shot,” Boeheim recalled this week.

“We had a big advantage. We’re playing zone, so they had to shoot some from the perimeter. It was the tightest zone we’ve ever played. We had five guys back in the paint. You couldn’t make free throws or field goals. We got a few drives to the basket and that’s how we won the game. You just couldn’t shoot.”

Boeheim told his players to drive the lane. The Orange took only four 3-pointers, making one.

“It was probably an eight, 10-mile-an-hour wind,” Boeheim added. “That’s all it takes. You could see the ball blow off course on the way to the basket. It was a perfectly beautiful, sunshiny day, but you couldn’t make anything. You really couldn’t.”

Dutcher was an assistant to Steve Fisher that afternoon, as he was in 2007, when SDSU was routed 80-64 at Syracuse in the NIT.

Now in his fourth season as SDSU’s head coach, Dutcher knows that preparing to face the Orange starts with scheming against the 2-3 zone.

“Obviously we shoot the ball at a high level so they’ll try to take that away,” said Dutcher, whose Aztecs (23-4) won the Mountain West regular-season and tournament titles. “They’ll take certain shooters away and extend the defense to that player or two and then we have to attack off the bounce or inside. All of a sudden If we’re not making jump shots, then they’ll pack it back in. So it will be an adjustment for both teams as the game goes on.”

Boeheim has “played it for 44 years-plus and he plays it very well, and there’s nothing he hasn’t seen and hopefully we’ll create some issues for him with our shooting,” Dutcher said. “And if we’re not shooting the ball well , we can put it in places where we can attack to the basket.”

The Aztecs are led by seniors Matt Mitchell, the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, and Jordan Schakel. Mitchell averages 15.4 points and 5.5 rebounds. He can take it to the basket or pull up from behind the arc, where he’s a 36% shooter. Schakel averages 14.3 points and is the team’s best shooter from 3-point range, hitting 46.7%. Terrell Gomez and Adam Seiko can also hit from behind the arc.

Mitchell is also good at feeding big man Nathan Mensah for alley-oop slam dunks.

Mitchell said the best way to attack the 2-3 zone is from inside out.

“It’s very important to get the ball in the middle, penetrate that zone as much as you can and spread it out,” Mitchell said. “As soon as you get that ball in the middle, it’s a natural force of habit for people’s heads to turn inward. As soon as people’s heads turn inward, they relax, they fall asleep a little bit. You spray that ball right back out to guys like Jordan, Terrell, Adam, even Trey Pulliam or Lamont Butler, that can either knock down a shot or get a guy up and get back into the paint and maybe make an easier shot.”

The Aztecs are flying a bit more under the radar than last year, when they were 30-2 and expecting a No. 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think people know that San Diego State is a strong defensive team and a team that’s going to come in and play hard,” Mitchell said. “As far as anything else, I don’t think anybody on this roster really cares, to be frank. I think we come in here and we look to hoop and if people are doubting, don’t know us, I think they will by the end of the game.”

AP Sports Writer John Kekis contributed.

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