WASHINGTON–Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim knows full well that one of the secrets to success for his team’s 2-3 zone defense is the way it confounds opponents who aren’t used to playing against that suffocating system.
The No. 4-seeded Orange won’t have that element in their favor in the NCAA tournament’s East Regional final.
That’s because Syracuse will face a familiar foe Saturday with a Final Four berth at stake: Big East rival Marquette, the East’s No. 3 seed.
“We’re much better when we play teams that don’t know us,” Boeheim said. “Marquette knows us. They know how to play against us, so it will be very difficult.”
Paced by Michael Carter-Williams’ 24 points, Syracuse reached the round of eight with some dominant defense during a 61-50 victory over top-seeded Indiana in the regional semifinals Thursday night. The Orange forced 19 turnovers, blocked 10 shots, and limited the Hoosiers to 33 percent shooting while holding them to their lowest scoring output of the season.
“Our perimeter defense was tremendous,” Boeheim said in an arena hallway afterward, his arms crossed across his purple tie, the way he stood for much of the lopsided game. “This is one of our best defensive teams ever. They play it well.”
There’s an understatement.
“In practice, it’s hard to simulate how tall they really are,” said Indiana’s Jordan Hulls, a 6-foot senior who was at least 4 inches shorter than the players usually guarding him and went 0 for 6 on 3-point tries. “We had the right game plan. We prepared really well. But we had too many turnovers.”
Three more, in fact, than shots made (16).
“Let’s face facts. We haven’t seen a zone like that,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “They’re very good. They’re where they’re at for a reason.”
Next up is Marquette (26-8), which beat No. 2 seed Miami 71-61 in Thursday’s first game in Washington.
Syracuse (29-9), heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference this summer, lost at Marquette 74-71 during the Big East regular season on Feb. 25.
That was part of a stretch in which Syracuse lost four of five games. Since then, though, the Orange are 6-1, with the only loss coming against Louisville in the conference tournament final. In that game, Syracuse fell apart in the second half, going from a 16-point lead to trailing by 18 in a 13-minute span.
The Orange built an 18-point lead in the first half against Indiana, and while that dwindled to six early in the second half, Boeheim’s squad never let it get closer than that.
The last time these two schools faced off in the NCAA tournament, Indiana won the 1987 championship on a late shot – and it took winning the 2003 national title with Carmelo Anthony for Boeheim to get over it. That decade-old group was also Syracuse’s last visit to the Final Four.
Less than a half-minute into Thursday’s game, as Indiana star Victor Oladipo headed to the free-throw line, the arena’s overhead scoreboard showed a replay of “The Shot,” as it’s come to be known – Keith Smart’s baseline jumper in the final seconds that lifted Bob Knight’s Hoosiers past Boeheim’s Orange.
Boeheim entered Thursday with 50 wins in the tournament, fourth-most in history, and more than 900 victories overall, with so much of that success built on his unusual zone defense, 40 minutes of a puzzle for opponents to try and solve.
Indiana (29-7), like most teams outside the Big East, isn’t used to seeing that sort of thing, and it showed right from the outset. Didn’t matter that Indiana ranked third in the country this season in scoring, putting up 79.5 points per game – and never fewer than 56 – while making 48.6 percent of its shots.
“Not too many teams are used to our zone,” said Brandon Triche, who scored 14 points Thursday and whose uncle, Howard, was on Boeheim’s 1987 squad. “That’s what we play. Other teams that play zone, they (also) play man, they switch up defenses. But our main (thing) is zone. … We’re very long, and we’re very active, and when we’re active like we were today, we’re hard to score on.”
Cody Zeller was held to 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting. Oladipo scored 16 for Indiana, none easily.
“Credit them,” Oladipo said, his head bowed and voice hushed. “They did a great job with their zone. They’re well-coached.”
Boeheim looked on calmly, occasionally resting his chin on his right fist while seated. He seemed something like an interested observer rather than active participant in the proceedings.
Sure must have liked what he saw, though.
“They never really succeeded in getting the ball in the right places,” Boeheim said about the
Hoosiers. “And it’s not that easy, but it can be done. But they didn’t know how to do that.”