CHICAGO — With Kyle Wiltjer taking aim from long distance, Gonzaga has seen very little zone defense this season. “Less than 30 possessions,” coach Mark Few estimated.
That all changes Friday.
Gonzaga and its efficient offense take on Syracuse and its famed matchup zone when the only remaining double-digit seeds in the NCAA Tournament face off in the Midwest Regional semifinals. The Bulldogs are trying to get back to the final eight for the second straight year, while the Orange are on the brink of their first appearance in the fourth round since 2013.
Winners of seven in a row by an average of 14.7 points, Gonzaga (28-7) appears to be peaking at the right time. But no one plays defense like Syracuse (21-13) does anymore.
“It’s going to be interesting just because you just — we don’t, and there really aren’t many teams in college basketball that play 40 minutes of zone, and I think that’s kind of the simple brilliance of the whole Syracuse plan,” Few said after the 11th-seeded Bulldogs practiced on Thursday. “It’s kind of amazing in that regard.”
It has worked for coach Jim Boeheim for decades, to the tune of five Final Fours and a national championship for Carmelo Anthony and company in 2003. But this has been one strange season for Boeheim, who was suspended for nine games as one of the outcomes of an NCAA investigation that found a history of improper benefits and academic misconduct stretching back years.
The Orange dropped five of six down the stretch, putting their spot in the tournament in jeopardy. But they slipped in as a 10 seed, and then thumped Dayton and Middle Tennessee in the first two rounds in St. Louis.
“I don’t really focus too much on the off-the-court stuff because every player, every team goes through that,” Boeheim said. “There’s always stuff that you don’t know about. But what happens on the court, this team has been up and down. We started out great, played great basketball and we slipped a little bit, and lost a couple tough games. Then we started to kind of get back playing well.”
Syracuse has allowed an average of 50.5 points and 30.8 percent shooting so far in the tournament, but Gonzaga has the perfect player to attack the Orange’s stifling zone in Wiltjer. The 6-foot-10 senior forward is a 49-percent shooter from 3-point range and averages a team-best 20.4 points.
“We just want to continue to play our game,” Wiltjer said. “They obviously are in zone, so for us big guys, we just have to find the seams.”
Gonzaga and Syracuse met once before, with the Orange advancing to the Sweet 16 of the 2010 tournament with an 87-65 victory in Buffalo.
Boeheim and Few have become good friends over the years through their relationship with Nike and USA Basketball. And they took turns praising each other Thursday.
“He’s funny, he’s witty, he’s a great card player, average fisherman, but there’s some hope there, some promise there if we ever get him off the golf course,” Few said.
Boeheim said their friendship began with a card game that went poorly for Few.
“Obviously, he’s a great, great basketball coach,” Boeheim said. “But he’s a better person.”
A rare show
It’s the fourth time double-digit seeds have met in the Sweet 16 since seeding began in 1979. The other occasions were Dayton-Stanford in 2014, VCU-Florida State in 2011 and Providence-Chattanooga in 1997.
Syracuse guard Michael Gbinije scored 23 points in the second-round victory over Middle Tennessee. The graduate student, who spent his freshman season at Duke, is averaging a team-high 17.8 points.
“I’d say he’s the most improved player that I’ve had at Syracuse,” Boeheim said.
The Bulldogs and Orange dominated the glass in the first two rounds of the tournament. Gonzaga outrebounded Seton Hall and Utah by a combined total of 82-58. Even with its zone — which can leave some openings inside — Syracuse had an 85-63 advantage in boards.
Gonzaga sophomore Domantas Sabonis, who averages 17.5 points and 11.7 rebounds, and Syracuse junior Tyler Roberson, who pulled down 18 rebounds in the first round against the Flyers, are two names to watch inside.