Bear with me here.
The analogy is far from exact, particularly because I’m not especially well-versed in hockey, but it’s been rattling around in my head since partway through the Marquette game when someone commented on how ugly the ballgame was. It was indeed ugly, but that’s because of Syracuse’s beautifully frustrating defense. And that got me thinking, oddly enough, about hockey.
The mid-90s was the period of my life during which I paid the most attention to the NHL, fueled partly by the Rangers’ success (and the media attention it generated, even in Upstate New York) and partly by hours playing NHL ‘94 on my Sega Genesis, just because it was one of the only sports games we had at the time. (Also prominently featured: Joe Montana’s Sports Talk Football.) So I remember pretty well the Devils’ run to the 1995 Stanley Cup.
New Jersey wasn’t the most talented team in that year’s playoffs. They had a young goalie by the name of Brodeur who was coming off a Rookie of the Year season, but otherwise their roster was mostly lacking in star power and excitement. They did not have a particularly explosive offense, finishing 15th in the league in total goals scored for the regular season. What set the Devils apart, and ultimately propelled them all the way to their title, was their defense.
The ‘95 Devils played a unique defensive system called the “neutral zone trap”. It has been around since the 1960s but rarely used in professional play. But the Devils went all-in on this system, mastered it, played it to perfection. Their trap bogged down opponents’ high-flying offenses, and they allowed the fifth-fewest goals in the league. Their games were often ugly, defensive grinds, and they received their share of mockery and derision from the purists out there. But they doggedly stuck to their system and rode it all the way to a Cup.
I’m sure you see the parallels now. Syracuse has completely flummoxed its opponents in this year’s NCAA Tournament, forcing more than its share of ugly basketball. Their offense is middling, but their defense has been extraordinary and has carried them to this point. The system they play is unusual but they are fully committed to it and play it better than anyone out there. I’m just hoping that they get the same end result as the Devils did.