ATLANTA -- On Friday, reporters surrounded James Southerland in Syracuse’s locker room as they sought sound bites and quotes for the flood of pre-Final Four coverage from the Georgia Dome.
Ten years after the program’s most recent national championship run, Syracuse returns to the Final Four with a team that many questioned throughout the regular season. For weeks, Syracuse climbed the rankings until many deemed the Orange one of America’s best. As a top-10 program in The Associated Press poll, Jim Boeheim’s squad was quickly becoming king in the Big East.
Syracuse’s surge is certainly tied to the effectiveness of a suffocating 2-3 zone.
But two months ago, Southerland (13.5 PPG, 40.3 percent from beyond the arc) and his teammates faced uncertainty that began when the senior was ruled academically ineligible in January.
“We were sad,” said Rakeem Christmas.
“It was definitely frustrating but at the same time, I felt it definitely messed up some chemistry,” Southerland said during pregame interviews on Friday. “Also, being a senior, leading your team, it’s kind of hard to be a leader for them when they’re playing away games and you’re stuck at home. But we all picked it up. We got our groove back.”
The void killed the vibe of an Orange team that had the makings of a contender. And the uncertainly impeded its burgeoning mojo.
It was a familiar position for Syracuse.
Three years ago, Arinze Onuaku injured his quadriceps before the start of the 2010 NCAA tournament. Last year, Fab Melo missed time during the season with academic issues before he was ultimately ruled ineligible for the Big Dance. Players worried that Southerland’s situation would force a similar scenario this year.
But Syracuse, which will face Michigan on Saturday, is not a one-dimensional team. It proved as much when it knocked off then-No. 1 Louisville without Southerland. But doubts about the Orange’s postseason potential changed when the team lost back-to-back games to Villanova and Pitt. Southerland’s squad went 8-for-28 from the 3-point line in those matchups. It just wasn’t the same team without him.
“One of the different things I noticed is that other teams were pinching in. It was kind of hard not being out there because I wasn’t out there to spread the floor,” Southerland said.
The Orange defense was incomplete without the senior. And Michael Carter-Williams (21-for-67 from the field in the six games that Southerland missed) forced shots in his attempt to compensate for the loss.
The Orange were unraveling and Southerland could only watch as he awaited an appeal and a chance to return to the floor.
He eventually won that appeal in early February and returned in time to compete in a Feb. 10 victory over St. John’s. But he only excelled in spurts. He shot 40 percent or better in the first two games that followed his suspension. It was clear, however, that some rust remained when he struggled during a 1-4 stretch that began in late February.
“It took us some time to adjust,” said Brandon Triche. “It probably took him six games to get back.”
Southerland has regained his old form, though. He’s 19-for-39 from the field in the NCAA tournament and 7-for-19 from the 3-point line. The 6-foot-8 forward will be a legitimate threat against the Wolverines because his range helps Syracuse create matchups problems for opponents. And his size gives Syracuse another big athlete with an enormous wing span, qualities that help Syracuse stall offenses.
He’s also the leader that Syracuse has called upon in tough times this year. Once the team learned of his suspension, it sulked as it prepared for its next game. But that was the reaction Southerland told players they had to avoid.
“He told me don’t worry about it, go out and have fun and do what need to do,” Christmas said.
That’s been much easier since he’s returned.
Handling the zone: Saturday’s game between Michigan and Syracuse features one major question: How can Michigan crack Syracuse’s 2-3 zone? It hasn’t been done in weeks.
The Orange held Marquette to 12 field goals and defeated Indiana by double digits in its last two games.
But Syracuse recognizes the threats that Michigan presents with its versatility and Trey Burke's leadership.
“They have great shooters, and we can’t let them get hot,” said Carter-Williams. “If they get hot, then they hurt us and we’ve just got to keep getting out on the shooters, contest and not give them open shots.”
Added Christmas: “I think [the 2-3 zone] will do fine. We have played good 3-point shooting teams so we have to just stick together, stick to the game plan and do all the things we’ve been doing all year in practice and in games. Like I said, we are a long team, we’re very athletic and we rotate fast. A lot of people that haven’t played our zone get puzzled when they play against us.”
Burke vs. MCW: The most critical matchup of the night will be Burke versus Carter-Williams, although both team's defensive schemes suggest multiple players will have those responsibilities.
But Carter-Williams said he’ll use his size to his advantage against Burke.
“I can try to take him to the basket and get on the block a little bit,” he said. “I am a lot taller than he is.”