For Syracuse, NCAA run is thanks to dependable 2-3 zone
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At 6:55 Saturday evening, with the President of the United States long gone from the Verizon Center in his caravan of black Chevy Suburbans, with Syracuse cutting down nets from orange metal rims scarred by Marquette's many misses, and with one place in the Final Four secured (another would come two hours later), Buzz Williams walked briskly from the losing locker room, turned a corner and shot a thumb over his shoulder to gathered media in the universal postgame signal for Talk to them. Williams had stripped out of his sweat-soaked dress shirt and wore only a sleeveless workout top tucked into his dress pants. This is his customary style, but on this night and in this place, he looked like a man who had been beaten into submission in a street fight. Metaphorically, he had been.
Two nights earlier Syracuse (30-9) had dismissed Big Ten champion and No. 1 seed Indiana from the NCAA tournament with a Sweet 16 victory built on the pillars of the Orange's 2-3 zone defense. They held Indiana to 16 field goals all night and visually, painfully, made the Hoosiers look as if they had never seen a zone defense. It was some combination of awesome (to Syracuse fans and pretty much any neutral observers) and embarrassing (to Indiana), but surely it would not happen again in the regional final, because Syracuse has been playing its venerable zone for more than two decades and Marquette's current teams had all seen it multiple times (and beaten Syracuse, 74-71, on Feb. 25 in Milwaukee).
Yet it happened again, and forcefully, as Syracuse advanced to its fifth Final Four, its fourth in the last 27 years under head coach Jim Boeheim (though the first in a decade), with a 55-39 victory that was even more impressive than the win over Indiana. And when it was finished, Buzz Williams was walking down one white-walled hallway of the Verizon Center's belly in his underwear, and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, 68, was holding court in another, his tie barely loosened and his voice barely rising. "I can't believe how good our defense has been in this tournament,'' he said. He delivered the Boeheim shrug and the Boeheim half-smile.
Like the Indiana beatdown, it was a statistically overwhelming performance. Marquette soundly bounced Atlantic Coast Conference champion Miami out of the tournament, 71-61, in the game before Syracuse's win over Indiana, and it was no less impressive than the Orange. The Golden Eagles not only locked down Miami point guard Shane Larkin, but also continued on a steady path of offensive improvement that included 54-percent field-goal shooting and a modest, but effective, 3-for-6 on three-point attempts. On the day between the regional games, Boeheim lounged on a couch near the Syracuse locker room and said, "At a couple stages in the year, [Marquette] was not a very good offensive team, but now they're making shots. That makes them a really good team.''
In Saturday's game, Marquette did not reach double figures until more than 14 minutes into the game. The Golden Eagles had just 18 points at halftime, and only a meaningless three-point basket in the final seconds got them to 39 at the finish. They made 22.6 percent of their field-goal attempts (12-for-53) and only 3-of-24 three-point attempts. "They were active, man,'' said Marquette junior guard and leading scorer Vander Blue, who contributed significantly to the carnage by shooting 3-for-15 overall and making just 2-of-9 three-pointers. (Senior point guard Junior Cadougan was equally bad, making just 1-of-8 field goals and missing all four of his three-pointers).
College basketball has been transformed into an offensive wasteland, stymied by a surfeit of physical play (far more than in the NBA), more rapid development of defensive systems than offensive ones, and by coaches who call virtually every play from the sideline. But even by these standards, Syracuse's postseason has been punishing. Overmatched Montana shot 20.4 percent and California a relatively robust 39.1 percent before Syracuse came back East to manhandle Indiana and Marquette. All of this is accomplished by that 2-3 zone defense that looks innocuous at rest and yet proves impenetrable in motion.
It starts with size. Syracuse lines up with spidery 6-foot-6 sophomore Michael Carter-Williams and powerful 6-4 senior Brandon Triche on the front of the zone. Along the baseline are 6-8 junior C.J. Fair (left side), 6-9 sophomore Rakeem Christmas (in the middle) and 6-8 senior James Southerland (on the right). Together, the five of them are a sideline-to-sideline knot of hands and feet, clogging passing lanes and contesting shots. Yet there is also a system at work, a subtle matching of defender with attacker. It has changed through the years. "Now the guys out front are expected to take away the shot and the pass to the corner,'' said Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara, a member of the 2003 national championship team. "There weren't quite as many responsibilities when I was here.''
Marquette was left clearly whipped. "They're long, active, athletic on defense,'' said redshirt junior forward Jamil Wilson, who shot 1-for-9 and missed all five of his three-pointers. "I thought they just had a lot more energy on defense than when we played them in Milwaukee.''
Wilson and Marquette center Davante Gardner, who scored 29 points in the February game, both said Syracuse made subtle changes to its attack for this game, sometimes attacking high-post entry passes with Christmas rising from the baseline and at other times with backside guards collapsing. "They switched it up, kept us off rhythm,'' Gardner said. (Syracuse players and coaches disputed this assessment. "Same thing as always'' Christmas said. "We were just more active this time.'').
Marquette fifth-year senior center Chris Otule, who got just one field-goal attempt in 22 minutes, attributed his lack of production to the swarming work on the back of the Syracuse zone. "There were a few times when were able to get the ball into Davante or Jamil in the high post,'' Otule said, "but from there, the baseline guys just shut off the pass inside. When we played them in Milwaukee, that pass was there all night.''
It is a significant weapon for the Orange to pack on their trip to Atlanta for next weekend's Final Four. In the Saturday semifinals, they will play the winner of Sunday's south regional final between Michigan and Florida. Privately, the Syracuse coaching staff fears Michigan more, because of the explosiveness and shooting skills of Wolverines guard Trey Burke. Florida, while explosive, is less skilled offensively and might struggle against the zone.
It is appropriate that Syracuse climbed back to the Final Four as it departs the Big East, the tough-man conference that carried its program to the top of the sport. As Boeheim waited outside the locker room for his players to celebrate their victory, he remembered the early days, long in the past. "I remember, right after I got the job, second year [1977, two years before the Big East was formed],'' Boeheim said. "I met somebody from Marquette and he told me: 'You'll never be as good as Marquette. Never. You're a football school.' These were the days of Al McGuire. Maybe it seemed that way then. But not now.'' Not even close.