I clearly didn’t see this coming.
Just two weeks ago, this team appeared to be as deflated as a punctured basketball. The air seemingly had gone out of the Orange men’s season with four losses in their final five games and seven in their final 12.
But they’ve clearly found new life in the post-season, and now, after winning six of their last seven they are on the verge of reaching the Final Four for the fifth time in school history.
Credit their revival to their smothering, octopus-like, 2-3 zone defense, which takes full advantage of their athleticism and length to stifle even the best of offenses.
I thought for sure that Indiana center Cody Zeller would have a field day inside against the foul-prone SU big men. But reserve center Baye Moussa Keita made like the second coming of Etan Thomas and Roosevelt Bouie, rejecting Zeller three times as the Orange man-handled the high-octane Hoosiers, 61-50.
Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche played terrific defense at the top of the zone, and Keita – the Syracuse MVP of the post-season – was aided on the back line by C.J. Fair and James Southerland. SU combined for 11 blocks and 11 steals and forced 19 turnovers. The Hoosiers, who entered the game with the nation’s most efficient offense, were held to a season-low 50 points and had their poorest shooting game of the campaign, making only 34 percent of their attempts overall, and just 20 percent from beyond the arc.
The enigmatic MCW played like a top-five NBA draft pick, with 24 points, five rebounds, four steals and two turnovers. For the third consecutive game, the occasionally scoring-challenged Orange men got off to a fast start. In their three NCAA tournament victories, they’ve outscored opponents by a combined 104-61 in the first half.
So, now, it will be a Big East rematch with Marquette, which edged them on the road, 74-71, a month ago. Guard Devante Gardner went off on SU in that game, scoring 26 points on 7-for-7 shooting from the field to go along with 12 free throws in 13 attempts. Marquette went to the line 35 times compared to just seven trips by Syracuse.
Buzz Peterson, who is now being mentioned for the vacant UCLA job, has his team playing very well, as evidenced by its 71-61 victory against the University of Miami.
Marquette has some physical guards who are quite familiar with the zone, so the element of surprise which contributed to the unraveling of Indiana won’t be a factor.
Much will depend on the play of MCW. He took advantage of scoring opportunities vs. the Hoosiers, but may need to revert more to a distribution role against Marquette. Keita, who has inspired teammates with his hustle and defense, will need to continue to play well. And SU might need more points from James Southerland, who attempted just three shots the other night and finished with five points.
I think this has the potential to be a fantastic game, given the conference familiarity factor.
The Orange men will have revenge on their minds, along with somewhat of a home-court advantage at the Verizon Center.
Just three weeks ago, they managed but 39 points in this very same building against Georgetown.
How sweet it would be for Orange fans to use the Hoyas home court as the springboard to another Final Four?
I definitely didn’t see this coming.