Syracuse moves on to the Final Four
Every NCAA Tournament has its breakout stars and in 2013 there have been plenty of them.
In the round of 64 it was Tommy Amaker and a 7’5”, 360-pound monstrosity from New Mexico State. In the round of 32 it was Florida Gulf Coast and the high-flying offense of Dunk City. In the Sweet 16 it was Michigan’s Trey Burke raising his draft stock with clutch three-pointers.
None, however amazingly, have produced quite the impact of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. Somehow Jim Boeheim and his team have turned one of the game’s most basic defensive schemes into an utterly unstoppable force.
Marquette had heard all about the 2-3 zone before Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup. They saw what it did to the previously dynamic Indiana Hoosiers offense on Thursday. They knew it was coming, but they couldn’t break through.
“We knew that they were going to play zone,” Marquette head coach Buzz Williams said. “Just like they did the other seven times that we played them since we’ve been here.”
“They have pros. They have guys on their team that after they win the national championship probably won’t play for Syracuse. It is the zone, and it’s the players in the zone.”
Sure enough Syracuse began the game staying true to their zone. They forced Marquette to take outside shots and as a result opened with a 19-7 lead with 6:30 to go in the first half.
But the Golden Eagles were then able to make an extended run. Led by 290-pound center Davante Gardner, Marquette pulled within three points with just over three minutes left in the half.
They broke the zone temporarily by feeding Gardner at the high post and letting him take mid-range jumpers. He helped spark the comeback with seven points in a three-minute stretch late in the first half.
Syracuse then made adjustments and took off in the second half. Marquette would never get closer than the three-point margin late in the first.
“We changed up a little bit,” Boeheim said. “When they got the ball in the high post we changed our defense a little bit.”
“We tried to keep them out of there and that kind of got us back into control.”
Marquette’s late first half run was the best their offense looked all game, as overall they shot poorly from outside and had trouble getting to the basket off the dribble. The Golden Eagles shot 12.5% on 24 attempts from three and 22.6% from the field on 53 total shots. They got to the free throw line just 16 times, making 12 of them.
Williams and his players attributed their poor offensive output, a season-low 39 points, to Syracuse’s athleticism on the perimeter.
“They’re really good at what they do,” Marquette junior Vander Blue said. “They have great athletes, very long and athletic. They cover ground really good and it’s just like playing against any 2-3 zone they are just a little taller.”
Syracuse has traditionally played a good zone defense, it is part of Boeheim’s effectiveness over the years, but this year Syracuse is perhaps taller and longer on the outside than in year’s past. Their zone features 6’4” Brandon Triche and 6’6” Michael Carter-Williams at the top, with two athletic 6’8” forwards in James Southerland and C.J. Fair in constant movement behind them.
Boeheim said after the game this year’s unit may be the best he has ever had on the defensive end.
“It’s one of our best, I think there’s no question. We spend more time on it now, my assistants work more in drill situations and pre-practice things,” he said.
“Our teams are good defensively every year, but this year the team is really statistically as well defensively as any team we’ve had.”
The Orange are still alive and will showcase their 2-3 zone defense once more, maybe even twice if they advance to the championship round. They await the winner of Florida and Michigan who play Sunday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Whichever team wins will head to Atlanta for the Final Four and rest assured, they will know what’s coming next.