What a difference just a few weeks can make. About a month ago, the Syracuse Orange were losers in four of their last five games; the season looked lost. Actually, head coach Jim Boeheim even made plans for the end of March.to take his family to Disney World.
But now, after a run to the Big East tournament finals and a week of dominating defense in the NCAA tournament, Boeheim and company will have to wait to see Mickey and company as Syracuse is the East region champion and heading to the Final Four in Atlanta.
And the reason Syracuse (30-9) has changed course and is headed to its first Final Four since 2003 is easy: Defense. The Orange harassed and confused Marquette in Saturday's East regional final, winning 55 - 39. Those 39 Golden Eagles points were the lowest from any team in a regional final since the inception of the shot clock. And just like Indiana before them, Marquette (26-9) was held to its lowest first half point total - tallying just 18 in the first 20 minutes. At one point in the game, the Golden Eagles had 7 made field goals to 9 turnovers.
And it's a good thing Syracuse's defense continued to be dominate. The Orange made just three baskets in almost 15 minutes of game play - a stretch spanning two halves -- failing to score from the field until nearly six minutes into the second half. Syracuse shot an ice-cold 38% from the floor, only 29% from three point range.
Luckily for the Orange, Michael Carter-Williams continued his hot play, scoring 12 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. Forward CJ Fair, Syracuse's Mr. Everything, pitched in 12 big points and James Southerland added 16 points, making 3 of his 9 three point attempts. But without that vaunted 2-3 zone, one that has held four tournament opponents to an average of just 46 points per game, Jim Boeheim would not be heading to his fourth final four.
Marquette standout Vander Blue, despite having already seen Syracuse this season, looked lost throughout the game, missing 12 of his 15 shots from the field. The only Golden Eagle to do anything against the Orange was reserve Davante Gardner, who scored 7 points during a first half 11 - 2 run for Marquette. But Gardner was quiet in the second, and the junior finished with just 14 points.
So Syracuse's season isn't over just yet. The chameleon-like Orange, changing colors just in time for March Madness, will face the winner of Sunday's South regional final pitting Florida against Michigan. And with its defense in tow, SU will be waiting, because it's Atlanta not Orlando for the Boeheims and for the ever-evolving Syracuse Orange.
Saturday, April 30, 2016, Watertown, NY