Despite having a “down” season, the Big East has had a phoenix-like rise during the NCAA tournament. The conference had three representatives heading into the Sweet 16 and are off to an undefeated start following Thursday night’s slate of games.
Unfortunately for Big East aficionados, the two victors from Thursday night will be taking on one another for a trip to the Final Four. The third-seeded Marquette Golden Eagles and fourth-seeded Syracuse Orange got double-digit victories over second-seeded Miami and top-seeded Indiana, and will face off Saturday for the Midwest Region championship.
The two sides played just once during the regular season, a 74-72 Marquette win on Feb. 25. Davante Gardner led the way for the Eagles with 26 points, while C.J. Fair put up 20 for Syracuse.
Though conference familiarity will certainly play a factor, both sides have ascended their level of play over the last month. The Orange have gone from a dead-in-the-water team that closed their regular season with 39 points versus Georgetown to a squad that many picked as the national championship favorite. And Marquette’s run has been filled with thrilling heroics and surprising individual performances from secondary stars.
In other words, throw that last game out of the window. With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of what to watch for in Saturday’s Elite Eight showdown.
For anyone who has watched Syracuse play this season, not much more needs to be said. Carter-Williams has been a season-long enigma for the Orange, looking like a future top five NBA pick one minute, and barrel-rolling off a cliff the next.
The sophomore guard was far close to top-five pick than human car crash on Thursday. Carving up the Indiana defense with his vision and athleticism, Carter-Williams had 24 points on 9-of-19 shooting and added five rebounds. He was the game's leading scorer by eight points and was a menace defensively, pilfering four steals away from Indiana ball-handlers.
Carter-Williams’ performance versus the Hoosiers helped lead Syracuse to victory and was one of the best of his young career. That said, it’s a style of play he would be better off not repeating.
Subscribing to the “point guard is a distributor” notion is archaic and nonsensical in most cases, but rings true for Carter-Williams. He’s a minus jump-shooter and has been all season, knocking down just 39.2 percent of his shots prior to Thursday night. Considering he took 19 shots—including six from three-point land, where he hits about 28 percent of his shots—Carter-Williams scoring 24 points and dishing out one assist seems like an anomaly.
It will be up to Boeheim to convince Carter-Williams of that fact. He’s gone off the rails a few times this season taking ill-advised shots, and Syracuse’s recent run has been predicated on Carter-Williams knowing his first priority is always to defend and distribute first, second and third—score fifth.
There are times, like versus Indiana, the score-heavy Carter-Williams is necessary. But if he takes 19 shots again in the Elite Eight, it’s probably not a good sign for Syracuse.
Syracuse’s Zone Versus Vander Blue
Without the brilliance of Vander Blue, Marquette would have been going home after the round of 64. It was Blue’s layup with one second remaining that thwarted 13-seeded Davidson’s upset attempt and gave the Eagles a 59-58 triumph.
Blue followed that up with a 29-point effort versus Butler in the round of 32, and again dropped in an efficient 14 in Thursday’s win over Miami. He’s been the lifeblood of the offense all season, the team’s leading scorer and emotional leader.
However, Blue’s drive-heavy game could be in some trouble versus Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 defense. The look has been a hallmark of Boeheim’s tenure with the Orange and has taken even greater prominence this season with the team’s struggles on offense.
It was obvious from the opening tip just how much the 2-3 zone, and particularly Syracuse’s crisp execution in that set, bothered Indiana. The Hoosiers scored a season-low 50 points and shot just 33.3 percent from the field. Considering this was the most efficient offense in college basketball heading into that contest and that Indiana had just one starter (Victor Oladipo) make half of his shots, Blue could be in a heap of trouble come Saturday.
Of course, Blue has experience against Syracuse’s zone—something the Hoosiers’ stars lacked. Blue’s previous meetings against the Orange play a critical factor in understanding rotations and where players are supposed to be, which should help him exploit what minuscule holes there are in the attack.
One problem with that theory: having experience hasn’t exactly led to top-shelf performances from Blue against Syracuse. He tied a season-low with six points on 2-of-7 shooting in the teams’ Feb. 25, and Marquette needed a career-best performance from Davante Gardner off the bench to win the game.
This isn’t exactly stepping out on a limb, but Gardner isn’t going to make all seven of his shots, and knock down 12-of-13 free-throws a second time. The Eagles will need Blue to step up and look far more like the player he is in March than the one he was in late February.
Which Team Will Knock Down Long-Range Shots?
When teams have mirror-like weaknesses the way Syracuse and Marquette do, the outcome is invariably affected by which side performs better in that area. In games between two bad rebounding squads, you’ll usually find the victor had more offensive rebounds—and that phenomenon is the same for most every other statistical category as well.
For the Orange and Eagles, that means outside shooting will be paramount on Saturday.
Marquette is one of the nation’s worst three-point shooting teams, as the Eagles have made only 30.3 percent beyond the arc this season. They get a paltry 18.4 percent of their points from three-point land, which ranks 336th in the nation out of 347 Division I teams. It’s by far the worst of any team remaining in the tournament and has bitten Buzz Williams’ squad on more than one occasion.
Luckily, Syracuse isn’t much better. The Orange rank 241st in three-point distribution this season, making 33.8 percent of their shots from distance. Syracuse has been prone to elongated, suffocating droughts from the field, especially against solid defensive teams like Georgetown.
Even more disconcerting for both teams is that they are almost wholly reliant on singular forces to carry their three-point shooting. James Southerland was able to bring the Orange back from the abyss during the Big East tournament, but has knocked down just four long-range shots during the Big Dance.
Marquette’s Jamil Wilson has been more prolific during the NCAA tournament, including a 3-of-4 night versus Miami, but has less of a season-long track record than Southerland.
One of those two players will ascend and help carry his team to the Final Four. Which one remains to be seen.
All advanced stats are via KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
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