SAN JOSE -- Under any circumstances, facing the Syracuse defense is a challenge for an unfamiliar opponent. "You hear about it," senior guard Brandon Triche said, "but our zone is going to be way different than they expect."
The version Cal sees Saturday evening in their third-round NCAA tournament matchup at HP Pavilion may be the best the Orange has ever put on the floor.
"Yeah, I think it is one of our better defensive teams," said coach Jim Boeheim, in his 37th season. "We pride ourselves on defense ... and this year we're probably a little better than the norm."
For the 12th-seeded Golden Bears (21-11) to climb past the Orange (27-9) and into their first Sweet 16 since 1997, they will have to be
Some scary numbers on how effective this year's model of the zone is:
On Thursday night, Montana made just 20.4 percent of its shots in an 81-34 loss -- the 22nd
Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, who once played for Cal coach Mike Montgomery, suggested the Bears can combat the Orange with more size and athleticism than the Grizzlies have.
"So my advice to him ... like I need to give him advice," Tinkle said. "He'll find a way."
Montgomery said the Syracuse zone is different from most others because Boeheim utilizes tall, long-armed athletes who crowd higher toward the perimeter, making it difficult both to get the ball into the key and shoot from beyond the 3-point arc.
"They almost dare you to throw to the corner because they'll trap some and they'll come running at you with length," Montgomery said.
One common approach to attacking the Syracuse zone starts with feeding a post player the ball at the free throw line area, and letting him find open shooters on the wing, or the other post player, moving back and forth along the baseline.
That spot at the free throw line could go to either 6-foot-10 Richard Solomon or 6-9 David Kravish, but former Arizona State coach Bill Frieder says the assignment comes with responsibility.
"You really have to make quick decisions because Syracuse does such a good job of closing. So he's got to be a good passer," Frieder said.
Kravish said being quick doesn't mean being in a hurry.
"Being under control, not rushing into anything, not forcing your way into turnovers," he said, when asked how to attack the Syracuse defense. "Just being patient on offense."
Justin Cobbs, who spends most of his time at point guard, might play more at the wing, opposite Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe. That would give the Bears two perimeter threats if the defense sags to the ball at the high post.
"We'll be moving around -- we don't want to just stay in one spot so they can locate shooters," Cobbs said.
Whatever the Bears have in store, it won't be anything Syracuse hasn't seen for years. But Cobbs said the Bears are embracing the opportunity.
"It's fun," he said. "This is what the tournament is about, coming in and playing teams like this, trying to make a name for yourself. I think our team is excited."