Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When C.J. Fair blocked Vander Blue's 3-
point attempt late in the second half on Saturday it looked eerily similar to
a play made 10 years ago by another forward for Syracuse.
In that instance Hakim Warrick also came out to block a corner jump shot
attempt from Kansas' Michael Lee. Warrick's rejection came with 1.5 seconds
left to seal an 81-78 victory over the Jayhawks in the National Title game.
Fair and this year's Orange have another thing in common with the 2003 squad,
besides the similarities of those two swats. This 2013 rendition is the first
since that 2003 team to reach the Final Four.
The path for Syracuse this season was quite different than that of the 2003
team which was led by superstar Carmelo Anthony and Gary McNamara.
A regular season that saw them rise as high as No. 3 in the national rankings
ended with losses in four of the last five games for the Orange. What looked
like the death blow to the title hopes came in the finale when long-time
rival Georgetown ripped the Orange apart in a 61-39 decision at the Verizon
"We obviously had a very difficult last part of our schedule and didn't shoot
the ball particularly well," head coach Jim Boeheim said. "But our defense was
Strong defensive efforts carried the Orange through the first three rounds of
the Big East Tournament, including a 58-55 win over the Hoyas in the
semifinals. The Orange would bow to Louisville, which is also in the Final
Four, in the conference title game, but got right back to work in the NCAA
Tournament with bruising wins in its four East Regional games.
Other than his more than 900 career victories and now four Final Four
appearances, Boeheim is probably best known for preaching the zone defense.
That has not changed this season and during the tournament run it has looked
as good as ever. The Orange are holding opponents to just 45.8 points per game
on 29.1 percent shooting. That has included stout defense beyond the arc where
their four opponents have netted just 19 shots on 109 attempts.
In their matchup in the Final Four the Orange's zone will be put to another
stern test as they take on Michigan and Naismith Player of the Year front-
runner Trey Burke. Boeheim is well aware of how dangerous the Wolverines, who
rank sixth in the nation in field goal percentage (.485) and 25th in scoring
(75.5 ppg), are going to be.
"Offensively they're by far the biggest challenge we've had this year,"
Boeheim said."We've played some really good teams, but we haven't played
anybody as good offensively as Michigan."
Boeheim might be selling his team short though as the Orange have already
dominated against another Big Ten school that could lay claim to the moniker
of best offensive team in the country.
In fact the Orange's most impressive defensive display of the season came in
their Sweet 16 victory over Indiana. Long considered on the short list of
favorites to cut down the nets in Atlanta, the Hoosiers looked completely out
of sorts against Syracuse. Indiana was a top 10 scoring team in the country
this season but was held to a season-low 50 points against the Orange, while
also tying for a season-high with 19 turnovers.
"We've played the zone the best that we've played it probably in all the years
we've been playing zone," Boeheim said.
A big reason for the zone's tremendous success this season has been the
personnel. Boeheim obviously has a prototype for ideal players in his system
with the key being athletic guards and forwards with tons of length. Anthony,
Warrick, Demetris Nichols and Kris Joseph are names that come to mind that
exemplify that type of athlete on past teams.
Fair has highlighted this season's batch with James Southerland and Michael
Carter-Williams also fitting the mold.
Carter-Williams runs the point for the Orange but at 6-foot-6 has the size to
wreak havoc on opposing backcourts. The sophomore has done just that this
season as he led the Big East in steals (2.7 spg).
"He makes me play harder on defense just seeing how active he is, being able
to get steals and things like that, it's contagious," senior Brandon Triche
said of Carter-Williams, "He makes the winning plays. It's not all about
points for him its about winning."
It might not be at the forefront of his mind every game but Carter-Williams
has been making an even bigger splash in the NCAA Tournament with his
offensive production. After being more of a secondary option as a scorer
during the regular season, Carter-Williams has transformed in the tournament,
knocking down shots from the outside, while consistently putting the ball on
the floor to get to the rim. All this while facing adversity in his personal
life as his home in Massachusetts burned down in March. To say he has been
tough would be an understatement.
It hasn't been a solo act for Carter-Williams though as he has received plenty
of help from yet another talented roster for Boeheim.
Southerland has largely erased the stigma put on him earlier in the
season when he missed six games for academic issues, by turning into arguably
the most lethal 3-pointer shooter in the country. No matter where on the floor
he catches the ball, when the 6-foot-8 forward goes up for a shot it just
seems like its going to find the bottom of the net.
Case in point, late in the game against Marquette on Saturday, Southerland
hoisted a desperation 3-pointer with a defender draped all over him but it
didn't seem to matter as he drilled the shot.
"I think all my shots are going in," Southerland, who set the Big East
Tournament record this season with 19 made 3-pointers, said." Every shot I
take feels good, so I don't think anything's going to miss."
Then there is Fair and Triche who have been the steady forces on both ends
with each also proving to be integral cogs in the machine-like zone defense as
well. Fair has been in double figures in all four tournament contests and is
the best player on the team in creating his own offense. Triche has struggled
a bit with his shot during the tourney (15-of-36) but his leadership as a
senior can't be put into a box score.
This will be Boeheim's fourth team to make the Final Four. However, he doesn't
see the point of celebrating an appearance in what amounts to a semifinal.
"I've told the players, when you make the Final Four its obviously right now a
great reason to be happy, but if you don't win the Final Four you will be more
unhappy than you would be if you lost today," Boeheim said after the win over
Boeheim has been on both sides of that coin. Perhaps Fair's block was a sign
that this team will finish up like the 2003 squad and not the 1987 and 1996
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