Familiarity breeds unease for Marquette, Syracuse

Familiarity breeds unease for Marquette, Syracuse
March 29, 2013, 5:15 pm
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Of course this is how the full-throated, dominating version of the Big East would go out - with a bang before exploding into random pieces. The conference will have no less than one representative in next week's Final Four thanks to Marquette and Syracuse meeting in Saturday's East Region final. Louisville could make it two, but the Cardinals path does not included meeting a conference rival.

The Golden Eagles are staying with the retooled, basketball-centric Big East, the Orange headed to Tobacco Road as a future member of the ACC. In a movie script scenario, this matchup would be written with a healthy dose of contentious overtones because of the breakup. It would live up to the familiarity breeds contempt idiom as both programs strive for their first Final Four since 2003.

Yet one day out from determining the first team headed to Atlanta, the vibe is more of unease. Compete for glory, a thousand times yes. Do so against a foe familiar to the core with your on-court wants and desires, ugh, do we have to?

"We had the same scenario two years ago when we played Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said on Friday, less than 24 hours after his squad knocked off Miami. "I don't want to play Syracuse again. Well, you know them and you know their zone, I know all that. I don't want to play 'em. I would rather play somebody else."

There is an ex-coach now radio analyst working at the Verizon Center this week who fully grasps Williams' mindset.

"It's a pain because they know you. You don't have psychological edge against them," former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. said.

Famously part of the 1985 Final Four that featured three Big East teams, Big John directed the Hoyas past St. John's before falling agonizing short against non-fearing and hot-shooting Villanova. Georgetown also lost the 1987 East Region to upstart conference opponent Providence.

"You have to purely beat them," said Thompson, who called Marquette's victory and Syracuse's 61-50 triumph over top-seed Indiana. "This game is mental as well as physical. [Indiana] sees Syracuse totally different than these boys tomorrow are going to see them because you're familiar with them, because you play against them."

"As much as you're proud of the Big East, I hated it when three of us where in the Final Four. I said, ' oh hell, we've got to go through this again.' It's much different, it's harder."

Thompson's long-time coaching adversary, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, offered a different and far less agitated take.

"The biggest change is they're making more shots now and you don't have to scout very much to see that," Boeheim said of the Golden Eagles, who beat his Orange 74-71 in Milwaukee on February 25.

You don't have to scout at all, you just look at the stat sheet. I'm not a big proponent of scouting, film work, I probably watch less film than anybody in the country. We know what we need to do ‑‑ everybody in this business knows what they need to do. It's a question of if you can execute it in the game."

The Golden Eagles won three of the last four meetings with the Orange, including the 2011 meeting in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Marquette implemented a non-stop run to the free throw line in the only meeting between the two sides this season, making 29 while Syracuse finished with only seven attempts. Wide-bodied big man reserve Davante Gardner made all seven of his field goal attempts,  12 of 13 free throws and finished with a career-high 26 points.

"I don't think he will play that well again," Williams bluntly stated, "and that's only because he's never played that well before or since. So ‑‑ he played incredible. But we do need him to play."

Gardner also led the Golden Eagles' relentless offensive rebounding effort, which proved a winning counter to Syracuse's lengthy 2-3 matchup zone - and offset a collective 5 of 21 shooting performance from beyond the arc.

Indiana had no such presence inside to make up for their perimeter shooting struggles against the Orange's swarming defenders.

"Yeah, their bigs got a lot of second‑chance points," Syracuse guard and leading rebounder C.J. Fair said. "So, the main thing is keeping [Gardner] off the offensive glass, and I think we can limit him."

Fair led Syracuse with 20 points in the first meeting. Michael Carter-Williams, who provided the full-court punch against Indiana with 24 points and four steals, had 14.

There is another aspect of this pending, heightened level of opposing awareness matchup that likely adds to any levels of anxiety for the coaches. In this increasingly over-coached sport, where the X's and O's gurus feel compelled to leave their imprint on every...single...play...this scenario puts more of the power with the players.

"It's not what the coaches know," Boeheim said. "It's what the players know and how they execute, and sometimes it looks like we didn't coach 'em at all, you know, but we do. We do try. We do coach 'em."