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Syracuse has unfinished business in NCAA tourney

The moment Indiana State's name flashed alongside Syracuse's on the TV screen, the first thing that popped into Orange forward Kris Joseph's head was Larry Bird.

Times five.

"Probably a bunch of (players) that could shoot," Joseph said. "We're going to have to extend the zone."

Ah, the Syracuse 2-3 matchup zone.

It's a diabolical five-man vice that has been a burial ground for so many offenses in the past, and it's what the third-seeded Orange (26-7) will count on Friday night to handle the 14th-seeded Sycamores (20-13) in the NCAA tournament.

The zone is a human flytrap of sorts. Venture into its middle and risk getting your shot swatted or the ball stolen at your feet. Dribble into the court's corners and expect to be double teamed by swarming defenders. There is no easy way around this mobile, 10-armed, 10-legged monster.

"It's a different zone than what we usually face," Indiana State guard Aaron Carter said. "We really didn't face a whole lot of zones this year in the (Missouri) Valley. But it's going to be a tough zone. They're athletic. They cover a lot of ground. We just have to do our best to be patient and work in and out and try to get some open looks."

To prepare for Syracuse's zone, Indiana State practiced against six defenders while using a hockey stick to replicate the length of an Orange frontline led by center Rick Jackson, the Big East's defensive player of the year.

None of the Sycamores were sure where the hockey stick came from, but first-year coach Greg Lansing finally fessed up that it was "borrowed."

"You're going to get us in trouble because we got it from our rec sports and we kind of had it in our office for a while and they never asked for it back," Lansing said. "If I've got to buy another one for the rec sports department, I'll do it."

If his team feels a little intimidated by Syracuse's zone, imagine how Lansing feels.

The son of a basketball coach, he'll be matching wits in his first NCAA tournament game against Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, a Hall of Famer with 34 years experience, 855 wins, 29 NCAA appearances and one national title on his resume.

"It's an honor for me," Lansing said.

Boeheim was asked about his first NCAA tourney game.

"You're kidding, right?" Boeheim said, rubbing his forehead. "I can't remember what I had for breakfast this morning."

The Orange haven't forgotten last season.

Picked by many to win its second title, Syracuse fell way short, losing to Butler 63-59 in the round of 16. The returning players came back determined to finish the job in 2011.

"We had a bad ending last year," senior guard Scoop Jardine said. "We're trying to win the tournament. We know we've got some unfinished business now and we're trying to get back to at least past the Sweet 16 and try to win the whole thing, because that's been our main focus. That's been our goal."

Syracuse started 18-0, lost four straight and won eight of 10 before losing to Connecticut in the Big East tournament.

Boeheim said defensive breakdowns led to his team's slump, but he's been pleased with the Orange's resiliency, which began with a road win against Huskies.

"That was a huge game for us to win," he said. "The team really reacted well to the adversity we had. Our young guys stepped up and our veteran guys have been good. Over the last part of the year, they got our defense going, and our defense was much better down the stretch, and that's what allowed us to get here."

For Indiana State, the goal has been to revive a program that Bird put on college basketball's map in 1979.

Larry Legend's aura looms over Terre Haute, Ind., where many of his ISU teammates live today. Lansing, an assistant at the school for eight years before the promotion, said one of the first things he did when arriving was to get videotapes of all Bird's games.

"Just to kind of get the feel for how it was back in those days," he said. "That's the first thing you think about when you think of Indiana State, is Larry Bird. And I know he's supporting us. He's watching us. He wants us to do well."

It would be nice if Bird could help shoot down Syracuse's zone. But the Sycamores are on their own.

The key for them is to space the floor and move the ball. And when they do get open shots, they've got to make them. Point guard Jake Odum must make good decisions. He'll have to penetrate the zone whenever possible and then kick it back out to the perimeter.

It's a danger zone not everyone survives.

"You can't just rely on the 3-pointer," Lansing said. "The ball has to get to the paint whether it be with drives or passes or just cutting. You have to work in and out. We've always been an offense that tries to work inside out. Even if our interior guys are not scoring, the ball's going down there.

"You have to try to get yourself an open look, and that window against Syracuse is not going to be there very long. So when you got it, you better take it."