MADISON, Wis. If death and taxes are the only two certainties in this life, Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim playing a 2-3 zone defense must run a close third.
For 36 years, the matchup-zone has been a staple of Boeheim's coaching success at Syracuse, a component as tried and true as anything in the college basketball world. Only a coach with 889 victories and a national title, after all, could release a 57-minute DVD offering a "Complete Guide to the 2-3 Match-up Zone Defense" and charge 40.
Yes, Boeheim recruits good players. But he only turns them loose once they've understood the requirements to succeed in his system. And that usually means opposing teams buckle at the knees.
Now, it's Wisconsin's turn to face the zone defense gauntlet.
"The players in that program have done it since the day they've been on campus," Badgers associate coach Greg Gard said. "We're trying to teach it to our guys in three days."
Fourth-seeded Wisconsin (26-9) plays No. 1 Syracuse (33-2) at 6:15 p.m. CT Thursday in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in Boston. The winner advances to the Elite Eight of the East Region on Saturday to face either No. 2 Ohio State or No. 6 Cincinnati.
In order for the Badgers to reach their first Elite Eight in seven years, they must first crack the code on Syracuse's vaunted zone. Wisconsin has faced other zones before most recently against both Montana and Vanderbilt for short stretches in earlier NCAA tournament rounds but nothing mimics the tenacity with which Syracuse plays its zone.
The Orange usually have four long, cat-quick athletes suffocating passing lanes, waiting to pounce when opponents make a mistake. It is far from a typical zone that tries to hide defensive deficiencies or slow down the tempo.
"They force people where they want them to go," Badgers point guard Jordan Taylor said. "When you back down from that and go back into a shell and try and not take stuff, that's when they impose their will on teams and when they get their way. You just have to stay aggressive and try to keep attacking them."
Syracuse is relentless in its attack and ranks third nationally in steals per game at 9.4. Guard Dion Waiters, who comes off the bench, leads the team with 65 steals this season. The Orange also rank in the top 20 in turnovers forced at 16.4.
"You don't think that's going to happen with teams playing a zone," said Badgers assistant coach Gary Close, in charge of scouting Syracuse this week. "That's how aggressive they are, and that's how long they are, athletic they are, how well they anticipate. And quite frankly they've been doing it for a while. So they know how to play it well, and they feast on teams that are not good with the ball."
Wisconsin offers a stark contrast to the kind of team Syracuse typically enjoys playing because the Badgers rarely make bad decisions with the ball. They rank second in the country in fewest turnovers per game (9.0).
The key to victory might be how well Wisconsin can move the ball inside and out, setting up the Badgers for open 3-point shots. Among Sweet 16 teams, only Xavier allows opponents to shoot more 3s than Syracuse. And in the first two rounds, Orange opponents UNC-Asheville and Kansas State fired up 40 3-pointers, although many were contested because of Syracuse's length.
"You might think a shot is open, but they'll close so quickly," Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser said. "You've got to be ready for that with shot fakes and ball fakes, use the whole shot clock if you need to."
The biggest question mark surrounding Syracuse entering the NCAA tournament was how the Orange would play without 7-foot center Fab Melo, who was declared academically ineligible before the start of the tournament. But the Orange haven't skipped a beat in their first two games with 6-9 freshman Rakeem Christmas and 6-10 sophomore Baye Moussa Keita playing in Melo's place at the back of the zone. Now, Syracuse looks very much like the team that was ranked No. 1 in the country for six weeks earlier this season.
The challenges facing Wisconsin on Thursday are obvious. The Badgers simply hope they're up for the task.
"You can't be nervous now," Taylor said. "The Sweet 16 now, it's definitely not for the faint hearted, so you've got to be aggressive."
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.