Spots in the Final Four are not awarded on style points, a fact for which the Syracuse Orange will be eternally grateful. Hoops junkies might salivate over the intricacies of the Orange’s zone defense, and might rave about the havoc it created Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center. That was, no doubt, a factor.
But the reality is that Syracuse earned its spot in Atlanta next week because Marquette’s offense was worse — much worse — than its own. Syracuse shot 38 percent from the field, was outrebounded by eight and opened the second half by going 51 / 2 minutes without a field goal — and won handily, 55-39, in the East Region final.
How? Look away. The details are gruesome. Marquette made 12 field goals and committed 14 turnovers. The Golden Eagles shot 22.6 percent from the floor, the worst performance ever in a region final. They hit 3 of 24 three-point attempts. That’s 12.5 percent. Their 39 points, a total reached when Davante Gardner heaved in a meaningless three with 19 seconds left, was the lowest output in a regional final in three decades, since San Francisco managed that many against UCLA in 1973.
“Our defense has been tremendous in this tournament,” said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, headed to his fourth Final Four. “And our offense has been just enough.”
Unsightly? At times, an assessment surely shared by President Obama. The Dribbler in Chief watched from a luxury box, and must have wondered about the state of the game he so loves. But for Syracuse, it hardly matters. The Orange are back in the Final Four for the first time in a decade because that 2-3 zone comes to play each and every game, and because James Southerland and C.J. Fair provided enough offense, scoring 16 and 13 points, respectively.
Point guard Michael Carter-Williams, though, was the Orange’s best player, stuffing the stat sheet with 12 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five steals — enough to earn the region’s Most Outstanding Player honor. Thus, fourth-seeded Syracuse will face the winner of Sunday’s South Region final between Florida and Michigan next week in Atlanta.
With all that, a miserable stretch of the season for the Orange — in which it lost four of five, including a 61-39 dud against Georgetown in this very building — seemed long ago. The players arrived at practice the day after the Georgetown debacle and, before the coaches showed up, began a spirited four-on-four game. Boeheim watched from afar, and liked the attitude he saw. But there was no foreseeing this.
“It was pretty much a 180,” senior guard Brandon Triche said. “After losing so many games in a row, we stayed positive, but you can’t say we didn’t lose confidence. We were unsure of ourselves for a little bit.”
The Orange righted themselves in the Big East tournament in New York, winning their first three games — including a rematch against Georgetown — and surging to a lead against Louisville in the title game. Though the Cardinals blew away the Orange with a monstrous second-half run, Boeheim left Madison Square Garden feeling better about his team.
“We [were] just trying to get on the right path,” Carter-Williams said.
The sophomore’s development is as big a reason the Orange (30-9) found it. In a nasty offensive game against third-seeded Marquette (26-9), Carter-Williams turned the ball over just once. His focus seemed unaffected by troubles in his home town of Hamilton, Mass., where his family’s home burned down last week. In four NCAA tournament games, he is averaging 13 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.3 steals.
“I think Michael Carter-Williams, over the last couple of weeks, may be playing the best he’s ever played,” Marquette Coach Buzz Williams said. “And that’s saying a lot, because he’s always been really good.”
Williams’s team had no answers for the zone Carter-Williams fronts. Williams dutifully said afterward, “The answer is never, ‘We didn’t play our game, we didn’t make our shots,’ or some other ill-advised excuse when you get beat.” But his players know they scored 74 points in a three-point win over Syracuse on Feb. 25. Such an about-face couldn’t all be attributed to Syracuse’s zone.
“We didn’t capitalize on the open opportunities we got,” Marquette point guard Junior Cadougan said.
Syracuse did. And on an ugly afternoon, they sealed it elegantly. Carter-Williams drove and missed. But here came Fair, soaring through the lane. His tip-in brought the Orange crowd to its feet, forced Marquette to take its final timeout with 4:33 remaining, and put Syracuse on top, 47-32.
So if you root for Syracuse, remember that play, because it was beautiful. And remember the result, because it put the Orange in the Final Four for the fifth time in school history — which won’t change, no matter how Saturday looked.
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Photos: Scenes from the tournament