Syracuse rides zone D to Final Four

Originally Published: March 30, 2013
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The expectation to reach the Final Four is always there for Syracuse.

The bar is never set below a Big East or national title, regardless of the personnel.

Yet, getting to these celebrated benchmarks is extremely difficult. Nothing is a given, but coaches are constantly graded and judged by whether or not they reach this pinnacle of the profession.

So here are Syracuse and Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim, back in the Final Four, 10 years after the last trip, and with as much of a chance to win the national title as any of the previous three appearances in '87, '96 and '03.

"Tom Crean did a great job and sat here [Thursday] and said he had a great year,'' Boeheim said in the hallway of the Verizon Center, as he spoke of the Indiana coach whose Hoosiers were muzzled by the Syracuse zone two days ago in what was arguably the Orange's best defensive performance of the season.

"I don't believe that,'' Boeheim said. "They left at 2 o'clock in the morning. That was a Bobby Knight move. It's the way it is. If you're not so good, getting in the tournament is OK."

[+] EnlargeSyracuse with Regional Trophy
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsSyracuse will play in the Final Four for the first time since it won the title in 2003.

Boeheim talked about how difficult it is to break through, citing the recent trips for Butler, VCU and George Mason. "Some teams don't get to the tournament final," he said. "It's just hard to do this. It's four games. You can do it. It's just hard.''

Matchups have to be in a team's favor, and it can't have injuries and eligibility issues. And a team must have something that it does exceptionally well, some sort of identity to bank on when there is adversity.

Time has flown. Hakeem Warrick's block of Michael Lee was the final dagger for Syracuse in its title game win over Kansas 10 years ago. Carmelo Anthony played his only season of college basketball that year before going to the NBA.

There were a number of chances for Syracuse to get back here, but no team -- yes, no team -- played the Syracuse zone as well as this edition during the NCAA tournament since 2003. The Orange have dominated their first four opponents -- Montana, Cal, Indiana and Marquette -- more so than any other team left in this field.

"It does seem like a long time ago,'' Boeheim said of the 10-year anniversary of the last Final Four trip and championship. "It really does. I was disappointed the last three years and thought we had a Final Four team in two of the last three years. This team after the first 20-something games, you could see this team as going to the Final Four. People thought it. I thought it, but maybe we had to go through those hard times.

"Maybe, I don't know. Maybe that is what got us to where we had to play better defense and work harder and execute better on offense.''

The Orange lost Fab Melo prior to the NCAA tournament last season. Three years ago, they lost Arinze Onuaku during the Big East tournament. This season, the distraction was early, losing James Southerland for a few games as an eligibility issue got settled.

"Losing James, even though we played well without him, that was a disruption, but maybe we needed more time together,'' Boeheim said. "I'm not sure. But I cannot believe how good our defense has been in this tournament.''

The Orange have made teams look like they have never practiced against a zone, holding their first four opponents to an average of 45.8 PPG. Montana wasn't even close. Cal gave the Orange a game but had to grind out every single basket. Indiana's Cody Zeller played as if he were a small guard. Marquette, which beat Syracuse earlier in the season, still was brutal against the zone, constantly waiting until the end of each possession, only to hoist shots that seemed to have no chance. The Golden Eagles made just four of 36 shots outside the paint.

[+] EnlargeChris Otule
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsAll tournament, the Orange have swarmed on the defensive end.

Marquette scored 74 points in Milwaukee to beat Syracuse. The Golden Eagles scored 39 Saturday. Since the shot clock was introducted in 1986, no team had ever scored fewer than 45 points in an Elite Eight game.

"Our defense is really why we're going [to the Final Four],'' Boeheim said. "No question about it.''

Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara was on the 2003 championship team. The Orange had two future 10-year pros on that team in Warrick and NBA All-Star Anthony. The defense then might not have been as good as it is now.

"It's really similar to the '03 season because like that team, we came together at the right time this season," McNamara said while on the court, watching his head coach cut down the final four strands of the first net and waving them to the crowd. "The Big East tournament really got us going. Prior to that, we had struggled a bit offensively, but the defense has been really consistent. We proved that again. We're still not playing our best, and we have room for improvement."

The offense can stall at times, but Michael Carter-Williams has played his best offensive games during the NCAA tournament. C.J. Fair's baseline shots are tough to defend. Southerland's 3s are daggers, and Brandon Triche's drives are an added advantage.

But it's about the active zone defense, a web that lures in its prey. On Saturday, MU had more turnovers (14) than made field goals (12).

Boeheim disputed the length and size issue of the players within the zone. These players trust one another, and they have worked together so well that there's been so little room for any opposing team the past two weeks to run offense inside the perimeter, let alone within the first 25 seconds of the shot clock.

Boeheim pointed out how difficult it is to play zone, or any defense, this locked in for nearly the whole shot clock, as teams wait and wait for a good shot.

And that's why this team is heading to Atlanta.

Boeheim, now one of just four coaches that have gone to the Final Four in four different decades, has said repeatedly he's not going to retire. Why should he if his teams continue to buy in and do what they're asked on the defensive end? The ACC awaits next season, but the Final Four is first -- next weekend.

"It hasn't been the time for me yet,'' Boeheim said. "That doesn't mean it couldn't be. Winning, losing -- none of that matters. It depends on when the time is right, and the one thing I'm always careful about is not to get out when you don't want. That's happened to some people, let's face it. I'm doing something I enjoy doing. There's no reason to get out if you don't feel like you should.''

No, you shouldn't. This has become the perfect team for Boeheim to coach in his last season in the Big East -- a team that has played the best defense since the last time the Orange went to the Final Four.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com