Dominant defense lifts Jim Boeheim, Orange
In coaching circles, zone defense is the subject of derision. For those in the fraternity, it's for teams that don't have the wherewithal or will to play man-to-man.
In his 37th season as coach at Syracuse, however, Jim Boeheim has elevated the tactic to an envied art form -- often mimicked, never duplicated. Two NCAA tournament games in three days this weekend at Verizon Center were his personal tour de force.
In the East Region title game Saturday, fourth-seeded Syracuse ran a 2-3 instruction video, harassing Marquette into 22.6 percent shooting and a season-low output, strangling the offense of the third-seeded Golden Eagles in a 55-39 victory before 19,801.
Led by 6-foot-8 forwards James Southerland (16 points) and C.J. Fair (13 points, six rebounds, three steals) and the region's most outstanding player, Michael Carter-Williams (12 points, eight rebounds, six assists), Syracuse (30-9) advanced to the Final Four for the fourth time in program history and the first time in 10 years.
Afterward, when the Orange cut down the nets on the floor of their arch-rival, Georgetown, they left the last few snips -- appropriately enough -- for Boeheim.
"We were as active in these two games in Washington as we've ever been," Boeheim said.
Marquette's top scorer, Vander Blue (14 points, five rebounds), missed 12 of 15 shots. Only one other player from the Golden Eagles made more than one shot from the floor.
Marquette coach Buzz Williams said the defense is difficult to attack, in large part because of the tall, agile players who are running it. The 6-6 Carter-Williams and 6-4 Brandon Triche (nine points, six rebounds, three assists) are a menacing pair in the backcourt. Forwards Southerland and Fair have the quickness of guards, which they showed on numerous occasions as they often beat the Golden Eagles down the floor for transition baskets.
"It is the zone, and it is the players in the zone," said Williams. who added that after "they win the national championship," some of the Orange would be destined for the NBA.
Syracuse swarmed Marquette (26-9) from the start, holding the Golden Eagles to two field goals on their first 18 possessions to take a 19-7 lead. Marquette answered with its best offense of the afternoon, going on an 11-2 run led by 6-8, 290-pound forward Davante Gardner (14 points, eight rebounds) to cut the deficit to 21-18.
After Southerland closed the half with one of his three 3-pointers for a 24-18 lead, the Syracuse defense resumed control in the second half. The offense of the Orange struggled in the halfcourt as well but got several transition baskets after intermission.
"They beat us from start to finish," Williams said. "We collectively tried everything we knew to try."
Closing the regular season with four losses in five games, including a 61-39 loss at Verizon to Georgetown, suggested Syracuse was destined for an early exit in the NCAA tournament. But the Orange found their defense in the Big East tournament and in the NCAAs have allowed four opponents an average of 45.7 points per game.
"Defense always wins in this tournament," Boeheim said.
Few would know better.
"We were as active in these two games in Washington as we've ever been," Boeheim said. "I can't say enough about how good these guys played on the defensive end of the court."