WASHINGTON, D.C. — Marquette has seen the Syracuse 2-3 zone before. They’ve seen it a lot, both in-person and on film. In fact, they’ve beaten the zone this year, a 74-71 win back on February 25th.
But the teams that survive and advance late into March are usually equipped with a handful future NBA players, maybe even an all-star or two.
On Saturday in the East regional finals, Marquette’s talent was no match for Syracuse’s talent, and the final score reflected this, a 55-39 win for the Orange.
Vander Blue led the Golden Eagles with 14 points, but needed 15 field goal attempts to get there. Davante Gardner finished with 11 points, but scored just two points in the second half. And to make matters worse, the Orange got strong performances from their top guys. Michael Carter-Williams, who was named the MVP of the East Region, finished with 12 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals. James Southerland led all players with 16 points, and C.J. Fair provided 13 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks.
Syracuse’s players played better than Marquette’s players.
Marquette struggled to hit open shots from the wings, and were unable to cut through the interior of the 2-3 zone. They made just 12 field goals on 55 attempts (22.6%) and just three 3-pointers on 24 attempts (12.5%). But their struggles weren’t because of a lack of effort or a bad game plan.
“Syracuse was the better team, they had better players. They have pros,” said Buzz Williams, who advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time in his five years at Marquette. “I think they probably have guys on their team that after they win the national championship may not play for Syracuse anymore. It is the zone, and it is the players in the zone.
Simply put, this Marquette team is not built to beat a team from the perimeter. This is not a team with an elite front court. Marquette’s best 3-point shooter is Jamil Wilson, who entered the game 38-for-95 from beyond the arc (38%), and finished the contest with just three points on 1-for-9 shooting, including 0-for-5 from beyond the arc.
Marquette can scrap with just about any team in the country, but if you force them out of their comfort zone, they are just like any other good-but-not-great college basketball team.
“I just think they flat-out played better than us from start to finish,” said Junior Cadougan, who finished with just six points. “Coach said we did everything possible to put us in a better situation, but we didn’t get consecutive stops and they did a great job.”
Perhaps Marquette believed that they could shoot as well against Syracuse as they did against Miami on Thursday. The Golden Eagles shot 27-for-50 from the field against the Hurricanes, unquestionably one of their top shooting performances of the season.But against Syracuse, they had stretches of five and six minutes in the first half where they failed to score a field goal.
Marquette has both in-game experience against the 2-3 zone, and a coaching staff that excels at game tape analysis. But one of the tools you need in order to beat a lanky zone like Syracuse’s is a perimeter attack, and there is a reason Marquette is ranked 310th in the nation in three-point percentage.
Maybe this loss means we should be giving Buzz Williams even more credit for the job he’s done with this team. On paper, Marquette is a top-25 team. But on the court, they have, at times, played like a top-10 team. You never have to question the heart, determination or toughness of a Buzz Williams-coached team. Buzz Williams has made a living off of getting good players to play hard.
“Well, he’s a tremendous basketball coach,” said Boeheim during Friday’s pregame press conference. “He’s done a tremendous job. They have a very good team. I just look at the players on the team, I don’t look at the hype. They have very good players. They’re very good defensively. They can score inside, they can score outside. They handle the ball, they don’t make mistakes.”
This was Marquette’s eighth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and their third straight Sweet 16. But this was just their first trip past the Sweet 16 since some guy named Dwayne Wade led the Golden Eagles to the Final Four in 2003. Sure Marquette has produced NBA players since 2003, guys like Lazar Hayward, Wesley Matthews and Jae Crowder. I’d be willing to bet that at least one player from this current team makes it to the NBA.
But you need elite talent to win a National Championship. In March, teams with more talent tend to win out, and on Saturday, that’s exactly what happened.
You can contact Troy Machir on Twitter at @TroyMachir.