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How Virginia Tech Broke Apart the Syracuse Zone Defense

Hunter Cattoor Justyn Mutts 1 VT Cuse 2023 From VT
Will Locklin | @locklin_will
Writer/Basketball Analyst

17 days prior to Virginia Tech’s dominant 85-70 victory over Syracuse in Cassell Coliseum, the Hokies' offensive issues were at its highest. Tech shot 3-19 from three point range, the worst mark of the season while posting a sub-100 offensive rating of 99.2 in the JMA Wireless Dome.

Saturday night, Virginia Tech flipped the script on the Orange, shooting 40.6% from long range and going 11-20 in the first half. The Hokies recorded a fabulous 121.8 ORTG, over 20 points per 100 possessions higher than their first outing against the Orange.

So what changed for Tech? Well, ask Mike Young and from a tactical standpoint, not much did

“We didn’t make a lot of adjustments but we were insistent on a couple of areas we had to get to when we were able to puncture it.” Young said.

One major difference was of course having Hunter Cattoor at the Hokies' disposal. As we’ll see from the clips to come, Cattoor’s impact on Tech’s offensive production and flow is no joke. Rather than obvious tactical changes though, it seemed like the Hokies were smoother in executing the formula they used to beat Syracuse’s famed 2-3 zone defense.

Grant Basile’s Versatile Movement

Right away, Tech beats up the zone with pristine spacing. While it’s not a five-out NBA offense, four out and one in was enough to counter the Orange’s defensive looks. Basile starts the play stacked up with Mutts but subtly shifts from the paint to the corner. The ever-changing positioning of Basile from down low to outside and vice versa was a key part in Tech’s offensive success.

Countering the last play, Basile was also able to thrive along the baseline and behind the three backline defenders of the Cuse’s zone. Working from dunker spot to dunker spot, Basile moves to the side favoring where the ball is before softly floating in a runner with nice touch. In the clips to follow, we’ll see how Basile’s movement paired with the efforts of Mutts and Cattoor to burn the zone numerous times.

“They dictate it with how they play by showing a concerted effort to keep the ball out of the high post,” Young said. “We wanted to space Basile some and that was helpful.”

Justyn Mutts' Zone-Breaking Passing

Simply put, Tech beat Syracuse primarily with 3-2 high low offense. Tech split their guards along the three point line while placing a forward at the elbow extended area (aka the heart of a zone) with a big as deep on the baseline as can be and you get an effective offense.

After a lapse with the ball, Sean Pedulla swings to Cattoor who finds a seam to the Hokies' ultimate pressure point, the free throw line area for Mutts to operate out of. As the ball gets to Mutts, a two-on-one advantage opens up due to the Cuse’s alignment in their zone and Basile’s positioning in the dunker spot. Basile moves into a more open window and Mutts surgically lays down a bounce pass to Basile for an easy finish.

On yet another play, we see Mutts break apart Syracuse’s rotating defenders. After a high arching entry pass from MJ Collins, Mutts is able to quickly catch, turn, and immediately fire a bullet pass to Basile into another closing window. Mutts’ quick and reactive passing, and strong decision-making guided Tech’s offense to an efficient night.


The Hunter Cattoor Factor

Sum up Hunter Cattoor’s spacing impact in one play and this would be it. After Pedulla slipped in a pass to Mutts, the Hokies had a clear three-on-two advantage to play with. Cattoor and Basile both make excellent forms of cutting to manipulate the zoned up Orange defender.

One Syracuse defender takes the ball which leaves Justin Taylor to zone up between two moving targets. Basile cuts from the corner straight to the hoop while Cattoor drifts from the wing to the corner. Taylor helps to cover Basile before noticing Cattoor’s cut which freezes him for just a second to allow another Mutts to Basile connection. The threat of Cattoor’s deadly shooting gave way for an easier shot at the rim.

This time, Cattoor is rewarded for his wing to corner drift cut. The spacing equation changed a bit with Lynn Kidd in the game, but Cattoor still takes advantage of relaxed defenders.

As soon as Mutts gets the pass, Cuse defenders collapse on him and cover Kidd. However, they act as though Cattoor will just magically stop moving which of course he won’t. Cattoor instantly makes the same drift into open space and cashes in one of his six made threes on the night.

Rinse and repeat, Tech’s offense does it again to Syracuse. The entry pass into the middle forces a backline defender to step up and guard Mutts. Syracuse prioritizes shutting off the basket by rotating down. Meanwhile, Cattoor motions to make the same drift cut before Mutts even catches the ball and finds himself open for a now you see me now you don’t three.

Fantastic Team Basketball

Within the structure that led to the Hokies' success, there were plenty of savvy plays that involved the whole team. Once Mutts has the ball, Syracuse does a better job of sealing off the paint and stunting out to Cattoor long enough to prevent an easy pass that way. However, Mutts swings the ball to Collins who fakes the closeout and resets the possession.

Collins blisters the ball back to Mutts and from there the Hokies do the 2014 Spurs proud with some quick and reactive 0.5 decision making (idea that a player makes a decision to shoot, drive or pass within half a second).

It’s remarkable how Tech switches sides with the ball multiple times to warp the Orange defense into a frenzy. Mutts swings the ball over which is followed by a Cattoor drive and kick to the other corner again. After another closeout attack from John Camden, the ball settles into Cattoor’s ready hands and he drains yet another shot from downtown.


Strong Transition Play

In addition to all the half-court jazz, Tech was more effective scoring in transition compared to their first outing versus Syracuse. In New York, the Hokies scored 10 fast break points, compared to 17 transition points in Blacksburg.

Plays like these are a big help as Basile knocks a hand on the ball to force a turnover and kickstart the break. Pedulla waits until the last moment to lob a bunny up for Mutts who slams it in to electrify the Cassell Guard.


All in all, Virginia Tech was a well oiled offensive machine versus Syracuse. Justyn Mutts' high feel passing from the middle of the floor was deadly. Grant Basile’s versatility and play finishing paired seamlessly with those Mutts dimes. Hunter Cattoor’s marksmanship and spacing gravity opened the floor up to the max.

Everything was clicking for Tech’s offense which led to them cutting off the Cuse’s 2-3 zone at its source and earning a double-digit victory to jumpstart a potential winning streak.

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