Many coaches use exhibition games to experiment with different lineups and strategies. That's why Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who has been the nation's most effective zone defense coach over the last decade, had his team play exclusively man-to-man during its two exhibitions against Division II schools. In their first game, the Orange beat Cal State-LA, 97-54. In the second, they lost -- lost! -- to Le Moyne, 82-79.
And now? "I think it's safe to say we'll go back to playing mostly zone," Boeheim told me Thursday afternoon with a chuckle. "I've seen enough."
Syracuse has actually played more man-to-man the last two years than most people realize, but without Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris in the program, that strategy won't be as effective this season. Boeheim wasn't sure how good his team would be at man-to-man, so he spent a lot of time the first couple of weeks of practice working on it.
He said it was disappointing they executed so poorly against Le Moyne, which shot 54.5 percent in the second half, but since his primary purpose was to gauge how good of a man-to-man team he had, the loss was not a wasted effort. "That's what exhibitions are for," he said. "I like to win 'em, but you use them to figure out what you can do. You get some tape so you can show your guys where they need to get better. So hopefully we'll learn from it."
Aside from the embarrassment of losing, Boeheim was pleased that Wesley Johnson, the ballyhooed transfer from Iowa State, exploded for 34 points after scoring just eight against Cal State-LA. "Wesley needed to have a big game. That started to get his confidence going," Boeheim said. He also told me that he had to limit the minutes of 6-9 senior forward Arinze Onuaku, who resumed practicing last month after taking four months off following off-season knee surgery. Onuaku made just one field goal in 20 minutes, and on defense he was forced to chase smaller, quicker players. He won't have to do that in the Big East.
I also asked Boeheim why he is starting freshman Brandon Triche at the point guard, when sophomore Scoop Jardine put up far superior numbers in the exhibition games (28 assists to one turnover, versus six assists to two turnovers for Triche). His answer was unequivocal. "Brandon's better," Boeheim said. "He's a better shooter, a little stronger, but they're both going to play. Scoop plays with him at the two a lot, too."
In the final analysis, Boeheim learned during the two exhibitions that he has a good offensive team. It's the D that needs to get better -- and the good news is, that's the more correctible part of the game. His players will have to correct it quickly, because they have a couple of pretty good mid-major teams, Albany and Robert Morris, coming to the Carrier Dome next week. And unlike the contest against Le Moyne, those games count.
"We have a lot of young guys who thought they were pretty good after the first game," Boeheim said. "I think they just got a wakeup call."