It might not have been the matchup predicted on many brackets but in an all Big East Conference Eastern Regional Final, the fourth-seeded Syracuse Orange take on the third-seeded Marquette Golden Eagles at the Verizon Center on Saturday afternoon.
A few weeks ago Syracuse appeared dead in the water with regard to its chances of contending for the national title after having lost four of its final five games of the regular season. However the Orange have kicked it into gear in the postseason and that was certainly evident on Thursday night when they brutalized top-seeded Indiana, 61-50, to get to the Elite Eight for the second straight year. A win on Saturday would give the Orange not only their third 30-win season in the last four years, but their first trip to the Final Four since the 2003 National Championship squad.
After having reached the Sweet 16 in each of the past three seasons, the Golden Eagles finally pushed through to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2003 with a surprising 71-61 win over second-seeded Miami-Florida on Thursday. The win was certainly the most convincing for Marquette during the tourney after they just squeaked by No. 14 seed Davidson and No. 6 seed Butler in the previous two rounds. With a win in this matchup, the Golden Eagles would also be emulating the 2003 squad as it was the last to reach the Final Four.
During the regular season these teams met just once at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee where Marquette was a perfect 16-0 on the campaign. The Golden Eagles kept that record in tact with a hard-fought 74-71 victory. Despite that setback, Syracuse leads the all-time series by an 8-5 margin.
On Thursday night against Miami, Marquette was simply more physical at both ends of the floor in a game it controlled from start to finish. The Golden Eagles hounded the Hurricanes defensively, holding them to just 34.9 percent shooting while hitting 54 percent from the floor themselves.
What has been so intriguing about the Golden Eagles on their run has been how much they embody the total team concept. Vander Blue (14.8 ppg) has been fantastic as the unit's top scoring option all season, and especially during the tourney where he has averaged 19.7 points per game. However the Golden Eagles have been getting big efforts up and down the roster. Jamil Wilson (9.9 ppg) has been lethal as a long-range shooter and he has knocked down some big shots already, including his 16-point effort against Miami. Big East Sixth Man of the Year Davante Gardner (11.4 ppg) and Chris Otule (5.0 ppg) have both been tough on the inside, grabbing loose balls at both ends, while Trent Lockett (7.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Junior Cadougan (8.6 ppg) have filled in the gaps on the wings.
Against a team that ranked in the top-10 nationally in scoring offense during the regular season, Syracuse completely dominated Indiana on Thursday night. Jim Boeheim's patented zone defense utterly baffled the Hoosiers as the Orange forced 19 turnovers and held IU to just 33.3 percent shooting en route to its lowest point total of the season. The Orange blocked 10 shots and did a particularly good job against Cody Zeller who was held to just 3-of-11 shooting.
Not normally an offensive force, Michael Carter-Williams (12.1 ppg, 7.5 apg) was in a zone by posting a career-high 24 points while the Big East assist- leader had just one helper. Even with talented defender Victor Oladipo guarding him, Carter-Williams consistently got to the rim for a number of athletic finishes. C.J. Fair (14.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg) had a modest scoring game by his standards with 11 points, but he pulled down nine rebounds, while Brandon Triche (13.8 ppg) bounced back from an eight-point effort in the previous round with 14 points. Triche has reached double figures in six of the last seven games. Productive long-range shooter James Southerland (13.4 ppg) was held to just five points in the win, but he still contributed with seven rebounds and three blocks.