By Gene Ph elps

Daily Journal

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. For Mississippi State, the road to the NCAA’s national championship passes through a danger zone today, Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense.

“We have to be concerned about the 2-3 zone,” Mississippi State coach Richard Williams said during Friday’s pregame news conference at The Meadowlands Arena. “It’s a defense we don’t see often.”

So, just what is this 2-3 zone defense that 15th-ranked Syracuse (28-8) is throwing at 19th-ranked Mississippi State (26-7) in today’s 4:42 p.m. CST Final Four matchup?

“It’s simple,” State associate head coach Rick Stansbury said. “You’ve got two guards up front, a center in the middle and two players out on the wings. We’ve played against some 2-3 zone. It’s no trick defense.”

But the thing that makes its different for Syracuse is the inside play of All-Big East forward John Wallace and 6-foot-8 center Otis Hill. Wallace is averaging 22.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while Hill’s numbers include 12.8 in scoring and 5.4 in rebounding. Another big body, 6-7 forward Todd Burgan, is averaging 6.8 boards per game.

“They do have some kids on the back line who are big and athletic,” Stansbury said, then smiled.

Mississippi State’s men in the middle are bangers Erick Dampier, a 6-11 center, and Russell Walters, a 6-10 power forward. Dampier, a consensus All-SEC pick, is averaging 14.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game. Walters, who will draw the assignment of handling the Orangemen’s Wallace, is averaging 5.1 points and 5.5 boards.

“They’ve got two great inside players,” Dampier said. “Wallace can play outside and shoot it, or he can drive inside. Hill is big and plays physical. He fakes inside every time he gets the ball. I’ve got to contest his shots.”

The key is for Mississippi State is to push the ball up court and beat Syracuse back before it has time to set up in its zone.

“We want to play inside-out, make them guard Dampier,” Stansbury said. “That would open up the perimeter for Marcus (Bullard) and Darryl (Wilson).”

Wilson, Mississippi State’s best shooter, is averaging 18 points per game. He scored 27 points, including hitting seven 3-pointers, in last week’s Southeast Regional semifinal win over Connecticut. Bullard is averaging 12 points a game, but he hasn’t shot well in the NCAA Tournament, averaging just over four points in four games. To Bullard’s credit, his assists are up. He’s averaging nearly six a game in the postseason.

“From what we’ve seen, they play a great 2-3 zone,” Bullard said. “We can’t forget about our post man. We’ve got to get Erick involved in the game early, and feed him as much as possible.”

Being patient on the perimeter is another key for the Bulldogs against a zone.

“I’m going to get my 3-point shot as long as we get a lot of ball movement in our offense,” Wilson said.

One thing Syracuse does not do in its zone is give opponents an open 3-pointer. Guards Lazarus Sims and Jason Cipolla will contest shots.

“We’ve tried to adjust our zone over the last two or three years so we could play it with the 3-point line being a factor,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We’ve been able to hold people to around 29 percent from the 3-point line this year.”

Miss. State vs. Syracuse

When: 4:42 p.m.

Where: East Rutherford, N.J.

What: NCAA national semifinal


Miss. State starters

F Dontae’ Jones 6-7 14.6

F Russell Walters 6-10 5.1

C Erick Dampier 6-11 14.6

G Marcus Bullard 6-3 12.2

G Darryl Wilson 6-1 18.0

Syracuse starters

F Tood Burgan 6-7 11.7

F John Wallace 6-8 22.1

C Otis Hill 6-8 12.8

G Lazarus Sims 6-4 6.2

G Jason Cipolla 6-7 7.7

Click video to hear audio