Men's Basketball

Syracuse’s zone has caught opponents off guard, but Marquette will be ready

WASHINGTON — Marquette head coach Buzz Williams made his way past his school’s band and the Golden Eagles fan base, receiving congratulatory messages for his team’s Elite Eight berth along the way before taking a seat on press row.

But the celebration was over for the head coach. It was time to get back to work.

So Williams, who traded his shirt and tie for a blue Marquette pullover, scribbled notes on a piece of paper as Syracuse and Indiana played out the second half at the Verizon Center. But in Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup with the Orange, pitting Big East rivals against each other, there are no secrets. And Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, who isn’t a fan of poring over film for hours on end anyway, said scouting simply isn’t a factor.

“We know what we need to do,” Boeheim said. “It’s always – everybody in this business knows what they need to do. It’s a question of if you can execute it in the game.”

The team that executes the best on Saturday will earn a trip to Atlanta for the Final Four. As Boeheim said, Syracuse knows what it needs to do to make that happen. The players don’t need to go back to their regular-season contest with the Golden Eagles to remember crumbling on the offensive glass down the stretch and watching their opponent go to the free-throw line 35 times in a 74-71 loss – SU’s third to its Big East rival in their last four meetings.

Marquette doesn’t need to cram for its battle with Syracuse, either. The 2-3 zone, which has been a force during the Orange’s run through the East Region, is something guard Junior Cadougan went as far to say his team’s comfortable going against. The element of surprise and shock at SU’s athletic and active defense is no longer in play.

Syracuse will be more than ready for the 6-foot-8, 290-pound forward Davante Gardner after he battered them inside for 26 points back in February. Brandon Triche and his teammates are well versed in Marquette’s grind-it-out style of play built inside and at the foul line.

“They impose their will,” Triche said. “That’s what they’re known for. They do whatever amount, 70 ‘paint touches’ or whatever, I’m sure they had 70 against us.

“That’s how they win.”

In the Feb. 25 tilt at the Bradley Center, that’s exactly how the Golden Eagles triumphed. Syracuse had no answer for Gardner, who went 7-for-7 from the field and 12-for-13 from the charity stripe.

Looking back on the loss, Boeheim remembers the Golden Eagles’ 15 offensive rebounds as a decisive factor. Boosted by that effort, they went to the foul line 35 times. Marquette finished second in the conference in free throw shooting at 72.9 percent, and Gardner finished third at 84.4 percent.

The big man relishes his opportunities at the line. With an MU Sweet 16 victory in hand and time running out in the second half, Gardner found himself standing at the line with the ball in his hands.

Then, the “automatic” chants started from the Marquette crowd. Gardner ate it up, looking to the fans to acknowledge their support before knocking down all four of his attempts in the waning moments. Marquette went 14-for-19 from the stripe in its 71-61 victory over the Hurricanes.

The free throws still stick with assistant coach Gerry McNamara as a key to this game.

“Keep them off the free throw line 37 to 40 times,” McNamara said. “I think it was somewhere in that range to what we did in the first meeting and some of those fouls could be correctable and some of it’s positioning.”

A split second later, McNamara returned to the familiarity between the two teams.

“We know what they do,” he said, “they know what we do.”

Vander Blue offered the same answer before saying he didn’t watch the Orange’s 11-point win over Indiana to advance.

The MU guard didn’t even consider it. After three years playing Syracuse, there was nothing more to learn. He’ll be ready for the zone, and he knows what each of SU’s playmakers contribute.

“We know Syracuse like the back of our hand so we don’t have to watch as much,” Blue said.

Still, there was Williams, jotting down tidbits even when it became clear the Golden Eagles would be battling the Orange on Saturday. Admittedly a scouting nut, Williams leaves no stone unturned. He said his staff’s watched Syracuse’s last six games and he utilizes analytics on teams and individuals when preparing for a game.

But when the game starts on Saturday, Boeheim said, it all comes down to how well the players execute.

“It’s not what the coaches know or what you know,” Boeheim said. “It’s what the players know and how they execute.”


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