The two-three zone defense has paid dividends for Syracuse so far in the NCAA tournament.
The Orange crushed Indiana, the East region’s No. 1 seed, last night holding the Hoosiers to 50 points. Tom Crean’s squad had no answer for the zone, as they hadn’t seen it enough during the regular season. The same doesn’t hold true for Syracuse’s next opponent.
“A lot of teams played the zone at the beginning of the year, so we’re used to it,” Marquette forward Davante Gardner said.
Gardner helped Marquette squeeze the Orange defense in the regular season Big East matchup. His 26 points led the Golden Eagles to a 74-71 win at the Bradley Center, and in the rematch his presence will likely be pivotal once more.
Gardner isn’t alone, however.
Starting center Chris Otule seems to get better every game. He picked up his first career double-double in Marquette’s second round comeback win against Davidson. He added 11 points and three rebounds in last night’s Sweet Sixteen win over Miami.
With both big men steadily contributing for the Golden Eagles, Otule said the game plan against Syracuse will involve plenty of paint touches.
“I would say that our game plan is to get the ball in paint as many times as possible over and over again,” Otule said. “Our goal is just to have more free-throw makes than the other team attempts, and if we can do that, we’re going to win the game, so hopefully we can do that tomorrow.”
If the game does come down to free throws, Gardner has been Marquette’s man all season from the line. He leads the team in free throw percentage, shooting 84.4 percent from the charity stripe.
That comes from his upbringing, and the wishes of his parents.
“They stressed for me to go to the gym and just work on free throws; no layups, no jump shots, no dunking,” Gardner said.
Gardner said it bothered him that a shot from the line was his only missed shot of the game in the regular season contest with Syracuse.
“I was shocked that I missed a free throw,” Gardner said. “I was (a little) mad at myself, but you know, we still won the game. I just remember the crowd getting into it and helping us in that game.”
Like it did in the regular season win, Marquette may put Gardner and Otule on the floor at the same time against the Orange. Both players commented on playing together and how they feed off each other in those situations.
“Davante is an incredibly talented person, and in practice we make each other better because I’m known for defense and he’s known for offense,” Otule said. “When we get a chance to play together it’s even better. It’s happened before.”
“I think Chris does a great job of selling the middle man for me to get open for shots,” Gardner said.
Gardner said he enjoys playing against the zone, because it works with his skill set and knowledge of the game.
“I like playing against zones…because I know a lot about spacing,” Gardner said. “I can step out and shoot the open jump shot. In man defense I can go one-on-one with my defender and score, but in zone defense I can shoot, so I can just go to the high post.”
While he doesn’t consider himself athletic, Gardner said he relishes the chance to take on more talented opposition.
“I’m not athletic at all, I just know how to use my body very well to get to the bucket,” Gardner said. “I just use my weight to push people around.”
“I love playing against athletic guys, because they think they can stop me, but I just use my weight to push them around. (I like) banging into them so they’ll back off, and I can get my shot off because I don’t jump when I shoot.”
As far as playing the Orange again, Gardner put the advantage and disadvantage of the matchup in simple terms.
“It’s a good thing because we know what they do, but it’s a bad thing because they know what we do,” Gardner said. “(The key will be) breaking the zone, and making sure they play up high, so the lane will be open for me and Chris.”