Syracuse is back in the Final Four for the first time since winning the national championship in 2003. Their 2-3 zone has become one of the biggest storylines of the tournament, as it was the biggest factor in helping them win the East Region. But Syracuse is much more than just a zone defense, so let’s take a closer look at the Orange.
How they got here:
Syracuse started the season 18-1 and looked like a legitimate Final Four contender. However, from late January until the end of the regular season they were 5-7, and were basically left for dead after a humiliating loss to Georgetown in their regular season finale. But the Orange managed to turn things completely around during the Big East Tournament, winning three games before falling to Louisville in the conference championship game.
Behind their stifling defense, Syracuse has continued to play well in the NCAA Tournament, holding Montana to just 34 points in a first round blowout and taking care of Cal in the second round. The Orange completely shut down high-scoring Indiana in the Sweet 16 and did the same to Marquette in the regional final, holding their Big East rivals to 39 points and earning a spot in the Final Four.
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C.J. Fair is the best player in the country that no one talks about, as he doesn’t get a lot of attention despite leading the Orange in both scoring and rebounding. Fair is the ultimate stat stuffer and probably has the best mid-range game in the country. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and makes timely plays at both ends of the court. Point guard Michael Carter-Williams has played great during the Orange’s postseason run. If the defense sends an extra man to help on him Carter-Williams will find the open man, but if no help arrives he has the length and skill to finish at the rim, making him a dangerous player who’s tough to guard. Seniors Brandon Triche and James Southerland are the x-factors for Syracuse. Triche is as physically strong as any guard in the country, and when he’s playing with confidence and aggression he can score 20 plus points against anybody. Southerland is a great outside shooter that carried Syracuse through the first two rounds of the Big East Tournament. If he gets hot from the perimeter the Orange are nearly impossible to beat.
One of the vulnerabilities of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is rebounding. There are no specific block-out responsibilities, so if teams crash the glass, especially after missed three pointers, there are opportunities to get offensive rebounds and second chance points against the Orange. Syracuse is big up front, but their centers and forwards don’t always get in good position to rebound, which is a weakness teams must take advantage of in order to beat the zone, although the Syracuse guards are good rebounders and tend to help out when they can. If the Orange are even, or close to even, in rebound margin they’re generally in good shape, but a difference of 10 or more in favor of their opponent can be a problem for them.
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Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim seems to be getting better with age. Some of his most recent teams have been his best teams, and this year’s team may be the best he’s ever had at executing his patented 2-3 zone. Boeheim has done a miraculous job over the last three weeks, taking a team that had hit rock bottom by scoring only 39 points and getting them completely turned around to the point where they only allowed 39 points. He’s no stranger to the Final Four, and will know how to have his team prepared and focused. Boeheim is also familiar with both Rick Pitino and John Beilein, which should be advantageous for him, especially considering he’s never lost to Beilein. Boeheim is too good of a coach not to have multiple national championships, and he’s certainly done a good enough coaching job this season to win his second.
They will win the title because:
The 2-3 zone may be the single most dominant force in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Syracuse’s defense has carried them to four wins in the tournament so far, in games that haven’t been close. Offenses can be hit and miss, and shooters can be streaky, but defense is something that generally carries over from game to game, so we can be certain that Syracuse will bring a strong defensive effort to Atlanta this weekend.
The Orange understand that their defense is their biggest weapon and the thing that’s going to lead them to a national championship, and knowing that should ensure that they play with a lot of energy and focus on the defensive end. The Syracuse offense is playing well enough to complement a suffocating defense that is playing at the highest level possible and that no one has been able to figure out. Defense wins championships, and Syracuse is undoubtedly playing championship-level defense.