NEW YORK — Any suggestion that Syracuse's recent exhibition loss to Division II Le Moyne means 13th-ranked Cal will have an easy time of it today in the Coaches vs. Cancer semifinals should come with a disclaimer.
The Orange played a man-to-man defense that night. That's akin to Jimmie Johnson navigating around a NASCAR track without a steering wheel.
Coach Jim Boeheim has piled up 801 victories at his alma mater, and Syracuse's rangy and aggressive 2-3 zone defense has contributed to most of them.
"They're just a big, physical team, and the zone is something they do very well because it's what they've always done," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "This is a zone team that zones 24-7. They know what they're doing."
This is the season's first big test for the Golden Bears (2-0), and it comes at Madison Square Garden, where a healthy chunk of the crowd figures to be cheering for Syracuse (2-0). No. 6 North Carolina (3-0) and No. 15 Ohio State (2-0) meet in the second game, with the championship and third-place contests set for Friday.
The Orange present a particular challenge because teams don't regularly see opponents whose base defense is a zone. It sounds like a good matchup for Cal, which led the nation in 3-point shoot accuracy last season, but it's not that easy.
"They've seen teams that shoot the ball well," Montgomery said.
It's a defense that in the 2003 national championship victory held Kansas to 4-for-20 shooting from the 3-point arc and forced 18 turnovers.
It's a defense that ousted Arizona State from last year's NCAA Tournament, holding star James Harden without a field goal until the final 10 minutes. ASU attempted 49 shots in the game, and 35 of them were 3-pointers.
"It doesn't seem like they're there, and then all of a sudden they've got two guys there," Sun Devils guard Derek Glasser said.
And it's a defense that has held its first two opponents this year to 21.6-percent 3-point shooting, blocked 20 shots and forced 60 turnovers.
"(We're) reactive, trapping the ball more than we have in the past," Boeheim said last week. "This is the best our defense has been in a really long time."
The Orange make it work with long, tall players who can close out on shooters and create a tangle of arms in the lane. This year's team appears to be better defensively than a year ago at least partly because every starter is at least 6-foot-4.
"They will trap corners, trap penetration," Montgomery said. "It'll be a very difficult zone defense to play against."
Boeheim is such a guru of the zone alignment he sells a DVD called "Jim Boeheim's Complete Guide to the 2-3 Zone Defense." Price tag: $39.99. Probably worth the price, considering it includes a segment on how to take advantage of any zone defense.
The man responsible for triggering Cal's attack is point guard Jerome Randle, who is generously listed at 5-10, but has great quickness and deep shooting range.
"There's always a way to beat a zone," Randle said. "You need ball movement and penetration. What we have to do is not get trigger happy. We have to be smart, pass the ball, get our big men involved, take great shots."
Montgomery agreed that Randle's decision-making will be a key. "They're going to get to him a little quicker than he's used to," Montgomery said. "He's going to have to pick and choose his moments. But Jerome's our guy."