Syracuse vs. Marquette: Getting Defensive

A day after the 4th seed Syracuse Orange vanquished #1 Indiana 61-50 to claim a spot in the Elite 8, the talk at the Verizon Center was about SU’s devastating defense and what it did to one of the top offenses in the country.

To recap quickly, SU forced IU into 18 turnovers, including 12 steals. They blocked 10 shots and harassed the Hoosiers - 40% from three-point territory this season - into shooting a mere 20% (3-15). The Orange held the Hoosiers a full 30 points under their per-game average, and generally dominated on the defensive end of the floor from start to finish.

Syracuse moves on to face future former Big East foe Marquette Saturday for a berth in the Final Four. Just about a month ago, on February 25, the Orange dropped a tough 74-71 contest to the Golden Eagles in Milwaukee. If you drank it out of your memory, reserve forward/center Davante Gardner had the game of his life, abusing the SU defense for 26 points on 7-7 from the floor and 12-13 from the line (not to mention 4 offensive rebounds and 8 total).

The loss was the second of four in five games vs. ranked opponents during SU’s infamous late-season swoon. The Eagles’ deliberate, physical style of play spotlighted Syracuse’s major weaknesses at the time: offensive half-court execution, defensive rebounding, and containment of brawny opposing big men – all facets which the Orange have appeared to rectify during their postseason hot streak.

At the SU news conference Friday afternoon, the players and coaches spent much of the time talking about defense, particularly SU’s vaunted 2-3 zone, and the effect it has on opposing offenses. Here’s a recap of defense-related quotes from senior forward James Southerland and head coach Jim Boeheim:

Southerland: I feel like a lot of teams don't have the length that we have, especially our guards and our forwards. It feels good. I've been doing it for four years now. It's nice to have a bunch of guys who work together, who work very hard, and it's got us really fair. It's never failed us.

JS: We all grew up playing man-to man, especially AAU and high school... After playing it for a couple years, we have bunch of guys, Mike (Carter-Williams), Brandon (Triche), C.J. (Fair) and I who have been playing it (the zone) for a couple of years together. It makes a big difference.

Boeheim: He (Devante Gardner) got a lot of offensive rebounds. That's not a gap in the zone. We gotta do a better job there. He got a lot of offensive rebounds. They found him in the lane, and he made good plays. He's a good player down there, and we obviously have to do a better job with him, for sure. The good thing is, from playing that game, we know that. We have to keep him off the foul line. We have to rebound better. We did a good job on their perimeter people at Marquette. That's why we had the lead.

JB: They (Marquette) know us. That's a factor. They know how to play against us. They're used to that. We understand them and what they do. So I think that's part of playing someone you know.

JB: I think they (SU's post players) have been pretty good defensively all year.

JB: The biggest change is they (Marquette) are making more shots now. You don't have to scout very much to see that. You don't have to scout at all, just look at the stat sheet. I'm not a big proponent of scouting that much - film work. I probably watch less film than anyone in the country, but we know what we need to do.

JB: Indiana knew exactly what to do. Tom Crean has coached against me. He's seen our defense. They knew what to do. It's a question if they can do it. That's what basketball is all about.

JB: It (the zone) is like anything you do. I learned this a long time ago. You have to believe in what you do. You have to believe what you're doing is right and good. It really helps in coaching to have a massive ego, which I don't have. I wish I did sometimes, but I don't. But the coaches who have those egos, they think they know everything and everything they do is right - and they never second-guess themselves, no matter what. They're the best, in some ways, the best coaches.

JB: We work on it (the zone) hard. We've gotten better. You have to get better in this game. I've learned a lot over the years about what we're doing and what we can do better. Assistant coaches - Gerry (McNamara), Adrian (Autry) and Mike (Hopkins) - have put in little drills in the last year or two that we didn't use that much before that have helped us. I had nothing to do with it. They did, and it's been very helpful.

JB: I think every coach has a philosophy, and you have to stick with what you do. Within that philosophy you have to be flexible. You have to be able to make a change, or do something a little differently... you can't be just rigid. That's why you become, hopefully, better at what you do the longer you do it.

JB: One thing that's helped me is when we played both defenses I used to second-guess myself, which it's bad enough when 30,000 people are second-guessing you. When you start second-guessing yourself you're really in trouble. When we went to just playing zone, at least I don't second-guess myself anymore.

JB: Really, it's been I think since we lost to Le Moyne (that SU plays zone exclusively). I figured out if we can't beat this team playing man-to-man we better just forget about playing man-to-man. They lost ten, eleven games in Division II that year. It wasn't like they went undefeated in Division II. So I think that might have been the best thing that ever happened to me, 'cause I stopped fooling around and we got into practicing zone more. By eliminating spending an hour a day practicing man-to-man, we spent an extra hour - we still spend some time on our man-to-man - but we spend more time on our zone. That might have been a key.

JB: You have to commit to it (zone). Most coaches have always played man-to-man, and that's what they commit to. That's what they do. That would be a major philosophical decision. For some coaches, they have switched. Buzz (Williams) plays zone. John Thompson (III) played zone this year. Pittsburgh - Jamie Dixon - played zone this year. Indiana played zone. I expected them to play more zone yesterday. So those coaches are playing zone, but you can't practice enough on both. The only team that's ever been good at both was John Thompson (Jr.)... because he practiced five hours a day on defense. Well, you can't practice that long anymore.

JB: They (80s Georgetown teams) were the best defensive team ever. Most teams when they change defenses, their second defense is nowhere near as good. When they changed, it got just as good. They changed between pressing, 2-3 zone, 1-3-1 zone, man-to-man. So they played four defenses. Rick (Pitino) does as good a job at Louisville as anyone changing defenses. They play man-to-man, great zone, and pressure. But it's hard to do that. More teams are playing a little zone, and it's effective. It beat us a couple of games this year.

JB: We have to do a better job on the boards, 'cause most of your fouls come after second chance rebounds. That's where you usually foul people. Not let him (Gardner) get the ball where he wants to get it. We need to do a better job of that.

JB: Nobody does it (play zone regularly). If a young coach was at a school that played zone, he could do that. But I don't see any of those guys out there right now.

JB: We work on our man-to-man and we work on our offense everyday, so we work on our man-to-man defense in time, but we do more zone than we used to. We didn't used to play hardly any zone in practice - ten minutes. They (the players) like the zone. They're good at it. They've worked at it. They understand it. They know it's a weapon for us, so they're fine with it.

JB: Derrick Coleman used to argue with me all the time (about defense), but he's gone. He argued with a lot of people. But he always did it, and he was good at it.

Jeremy Ryan is a writer/editor for CNYcentral.com in Syracuse. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyRyan44.

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