Syracuse zones in on Final Four, just in time

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One can offer myriad explanations for how the Syracuse Orange in three weeks transformed from a slumping squad to regional champions. There was the stingy execution of the 2-3 zone. Plenty of clutch play. Daylight saving time. Improved shooting.

Wait, daylight saving time? Perhaps that one requires some elaboration.

When the Orange took to the practice court March 10 in Syracuse, a day after rival Georgetown handed them a 61-39 shellacking at Verizon Center, coach Jim Boeheim was MIA. The Hall of Famer, it turned out, forgot about springing ahead an hour. But he was pleasantly surprised to see what transpired amid his tardiness.

“When I got down, they were playing 4 on 4 — and playing hard,” Boeheim recalled. “I watched them for a few minutes and it was really a good thing.”

Minus adult supervision, the veteran players had decided to fire up practice. With four losses in five games, they couldn’t afford to dillydally. Tournament time loomed, after all.

“We went real hard,” sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams said, “and competed with each other and got our competitive edge back.”

Since then, playing in the Big East and NCAA tournaments, Syracuse is 7-1. Returning to Verizon Center, the fourth-seeded Orange knocked off No. 1 seed Indiana on Thursday and ousted Big East foe Marquette on Saturday. Now, they find themselves preparing for their first Final Four since the program’s 2003 national championship season.

What a difference eight games can make.

“It’s pretty much a 180,” senior guard Brandon Triche said. “After losing so many games in a row, we stayed positive, but you can’t say we didn’t lose confidence. We were probably unsure of ourselves a little bit.”

On offense, the up-and-down Orange do bring balance. Carter-Williams eloquently runs the show. C.J. Fair’s jump shots complement Triche’s drives to the basket. When in need of a timely 3-pointer, James Southerland tends to step up.

But there is little debating this Syracuse team is built on that swarming zone defense.

In the Orange’s 55-39 win, Marquette whipped passes around the perimeter to no avail. The Golden Eagles would slash and kick, only to still take contested jumpers. By night’s end, their 23 percent shooting effort included a 3-for-24 clip from beyond the arc.

While second-chance points and baskets in transition can crack the zone philosophy, no one this tournament has done so. Through the four-game run, Syracuse is limiting opponents to 29 percent from the field.

“This team has just really come together and has played great basketball,” Boeheim said. “Our teams are good defensively every year. But this year’s team statistically played as well as any defensive team we’ve had.”

Syracuse will lean on that side of the ball again Saturday, when the East Region champion Orange take on Michigan in Atlanta for a spot in the national title game two days later.

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