Jim Boeheim has been extra cranky this season—Andy Katz can attest—and late in the season, the coach had plenty of reason to be sour.
It was 21 days ago that Syracuse put up only 39 points at Georgetown in its seventh loss in 12 games. Boeheim had a flawed basketball team and one that was easy to write off.
That day, Boeheim told The Post-Standard:
If we were going to the NCAA Tournament right now, I’d say we have problems. That doesn’t mean we can’t make it to the Sweet 16. That’s still very possible, but we’re going to have to play a heckuva lot better.
On Saturday, the overlooked Orange played a heckuva lot better and continued their three-week redemption tour with a 55-39 win over Marquette to book Boeheim's first trip to the Final Four since 2003.
How the Orange bounced back is a testament to how Boeheim builds his program and a zone defense that has aged like fine wine.
Boeheim recruits to his defense—length and quickness are a plus—and this team bought in because it had no other choice when scoring became a chore.
I'll be honest. I kept picking against the Orange because the team lacks a big man who can score. All season, Syracuse has gone through cold spells because Boeheim has had to rely too much on his perimeter players.
But the Orange are headed to Atlanta not because the offense suddenly clicked these last two weeks.
After scoring 81 against overmatched Montana in the opening round, the Orange averaged 60.7 points in wins against California, Indiana and Marquette. Syracuse shot just 38 percent against Marquette.
The offense comes and goes...and it doesn't matter.
The Golden Eagles became the fourth straight team unable to figure out the zone, and this is a team that had cracked the safe during the regular season in a 74-71 win.
Marquette made only 5-of-21 threes that day, but big man Devante Gardner found a home in the center of the zone and scored 26 points on 7-of-7 shooting.
Marquette's game plan on Saturday was to once again get the ball into the heart of the zone. Save for two straight possessions late in the first half when Gardner buried a 15-foot jumper and then found Chris Otule for a layup, Syracuse was too alert and too active to let it happen again.
If Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche were not deflecting the ball, the bottom of Syracuse's zone took away any sort of visual Marquette had on the rim.
As a result, the Golden Eagles, a team that shoots a tick above 30 percent from distance, had to settle for too many threes. They made 3-of-24.
In four tournament games, Syracuse opponents shot 15.4 percent from three. It wasn't much easier inside the arc either (39.2 percent).
Boeheim has had more talented teams on the offensive end, and he's had much better seasons than this. But few of his teams have put as much effort into making the zone impenetrable.
That's how the Orange got to the right side of 39. That's how the team that was free-falling is now going to Atlanta.