Final Four questions: Syracuse Orange




Is the zone really this good?

In short, yes. It has been.

Good luck searching back through the annals of Jim Boeheim’s career and finding a better four-game stretch of defensive prowess. With a starting lineup that stretches 6-foot-5 or taller and is flush with athleticism, everything has come together for the Orange and its fearsome 2-3 zone. In wins over Montana, California, Indiana and Marquette, Boeheim’s team has won by an average margin of 20 points per game — a stretch of dominance rivaled only by Big East counterpart Louisville.

The numbers play out like a nightmare for opposing offenses and lovers of, well, scoring in general:

— 29 percent opponent’s field goal percentage
— 15 percent opponent’s 3-point percentage
— Opponents are averaging 0.73 points per possession
— Yikes

Now, it should be mentioned that outside of Indiana, Syracuse’s opponents have not exactly been offensive juggernauts. But you’d be hard-pressed to find any coach, player, commentator or fan that does not respect (or fear) the rejuvenated Orange zone.

Michigan will be the top offense Syracuse has faced this tournament — and this season — but the Orange’s zone has made a habit out of getting good offenses out of their rhythm. This isn’t the typical move-it-around-until-there’s-an-open-look 2-3 outfit. It’s different, and everyone knows it.

The only thing left to see is if Michigan or any other future opponent can solve it before the clock runs out.

Can Michael Carter-Williams turn in two elite performances?

Louisville coach Rick Pitino, with evident enthusiasm on his face, proclaimed this Final Four to be a guard-dominated quartet Thursday. Though coming from the mouth of a noted backcourt proponent, there’s a definitive truth there: Carter-Williams, Trey Burke (Michigan), Russ Smith and Peyton Siva (Louisville) and even Wichita State’s Malcolm Armstead represent some of the best guards in this year’s tournament.

Perhaps no other player still remaining in this tournament went through more highs and lows this season than Carter-Williams.

During Syracuse’s non-conference schedule, the rangy sophomore was averaging more than 10 assists per game, including a staggering 50 percent of the Orange’s assists when he was on the floor. His in-the-moment title of Assist King stood largely because no other player came close — Carter-Williams run was being compared to historic point guard seasons rather than those of his peers.

But his quality of play declined versus Big East competition, and it’s taken the win-or-go-home mentality of the Big Dance to fully get it back.

“Obviously when you get into your conference and people know you better, it’s more difficult. You’re not going to average 10 assists a game like he did in the non‑conference part,” Boeheim said during Final Four press conferences. “I think the part of his game that sometimes gets overlooked, he’s third in the country or so in steals. That’s difficult out of a zone. There’s not as many steal opportunities as if you’re a pressing team. And so his rebounding has been very important for us.”

His coach has a point: Carter-Williams, despite bouts of inconsistency, still finished third nationally in assists (7.41 per game) and fifth in steals (2.74).

When he’s at the top of his game, like he was against Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen, the 6-foot-6 playmaker can be the best player on the floor and a legitimate NBA lottery pick. Against the Hoosiers, he put up 24 points against one of the nation’s best defenders, Player of the Year contender Victor Oladipo. Indiana’s First Team All-American couldn’t stay in front of him at times.

Michigan will have similar problems if Carter-Wiliams stays under control (his 3.4 turnovers per game were a Big East-worst by a wide margin) yet aggressive for 40 minutes on Saturday. He’s the Final Four’s preeminent X-factor.

Will Syracuse remain relaxed under the bright lights of the Final Four?

A story trickling out once the Orange’s Elite Eight matchup with Marquette was all but decided was that, during pregame broadcast interviews, Boeheim and his players did not even know their practice time for the day. Cue the head coach’s shoulder shrug. Allegedly, he was too relaxed to care.

It’s one of those tales that could shed a positive or negative light depending on the game’s outcome, but CBS’ broadcast team of Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery ate it up. There was something to the tale, though: the Orange’s systematic approach to its Final Four journey certainly resonated for those who had watched the team’s Big East valleys.

The team’s relaxed nature off the court has infused its on-court performance, as the same offense that was held to 39 and 46 points by Georgetown has now scored at least 0.95 points per possession in every game this postseason — a strong indicator for success for a squad that features such a smothering defense.

“They’re a good basketball team. They’re playing good basketball,” Boeheim said of his group. “It’s hard to beat a team like Indiana convincingly. I don’t recall exactly their season, but I don’t remember if anybody beat them convincingly. … I’m happy at this stage. We have a really good group, really easy group to coach.”

Based on the scores, “easy” is a good way to describe Syracuse’s Dance. It will be interesting to see if the coaches and players can transcribe such a lounge-chair environment to the biggest front porch in college basketball.

Is Jim Boeheim riding off into the sunset?

Speculation surrounding the veteran coach’s impending retirement started long before his surprise Final Four run. With Syracuse transitioning into the ACC, it has long been assumed that Boeheim wants no part of the new post-realignment world.

Now, as perspective has set in as to how difficult it can be to return to this stage of a season — this is Boeheim’s first Final Four appearance since his 2003 national title with Carmelo Anthony & Co. — he looks content in answering the ever-present question: “Is it time?”

“I think I started — I never can remember, I can’t keep track — at 31 or 32. I was hoping to make it 38. That (was) really the thought I had: Can I make it to 38?” Boeheim said. “They wanted to give me a three‑year contract, I held out for four. … I was hoping to make it to the first five. Then after that, I was hoping to make it to 10.

“I think in this business, you know, somebody asked me last year, ‘You’re not worried if you have a bad year, are you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, you don’t get bad years at Syracuse.’ They expect you to win. I mean, if you don’t win, you’re too old or something.”

If this is the end of the road for Boeheim, it’s a fitting culmination of a career defined by doing things his own way: his fourth-seeded team was overlooked, his 2-3 zone is better than ever and the world is once again watching. He’s 68, but Syracuse’s headman is still at the top of the coaching profession.

One of the sharpest minds in college basketball hasn’t dulled a bit.

“The guy is smart. You ask him about college football, he’ll tell you. You ask him about North Korea right now, he probably knows all about that,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “He is a smart guy. I think the Syracuse people already know that.”