Synergy: Marquette must excel playing zone, get paint touches

Marquette forced seven Syracuse turnovers while playing zone back in February. (USA Today)

Marquette forced seven Syracuse turnovers while playing zone back in February. (USA Today)

After perhaps its most impressive performance of the season, and certainly its most clutch, Marquette will face fourth-seeded Syracuse with a chance to earn a trip to the Final Four in Atlanta.

The Golden Eagles implemented a perfect defense against Miami’s pick-and-roll action, limiting Miami to 16 first-half points on their way to a 71-61 victory. Up next is a rematch of a Feb. 25 matchup, that the Golden Eagles won 74-71.

And while much has changed in that month span, there are a few key takeaways from that contest that Marquette must take advantage of to make its first trip to the Final Four since 2003.

The one distinct difference from that February game and Marquette’s season totals was the amount of time the Golden Eagles spent in zone defense. On the year, Marquette has played zone less than 14 percent of the time, but that number unofficially exploded to more than 60 percent in that matchup. Here’s how Marquette handled the Syracuse offense when in zone looks, compared to its season averages:


The points per possession and percent of the time Syracuse scored were higher than Marquette defense season averages, but that includes time in zones against non-conference opponents who weren’t going to play as well as Syracuse did.

Let’s instead (unofficially) compare the Syracuse offense against Marquette’s man-to-man defense that February night:


The Orange completely exploited Marquette in man-to-man looks. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as Syracuse’s matchup problems in Michael Carter-Williams at point guard, C.J. Fair at forward and even Brandon Triche at shooting guard made man-to-man looks a problem. Season averages gave way to Williams playing more zone, too, as the Orange rank in the 27rd percentile in the country against zone defenses, compared to the 75th percentile against man.

It also was the first time Marquette really used the “Oxtule” lineup–Davante Gardner and Chris Otule at the same time–and it worked well. The Golden Eagles were much better when playing in a 2-3 zone, and because of it there’s a good chance they play it close to 60 percent of the time Saturday.

It’s no secret Jim Boheim’s group will play primarily a 2-3 zone on Saturday. It’s the only defense the Orange run, and they do it as well as any team in the country. Because of that, paint touches will be crucial for Marquette, just as it was in that Big East matchup in February.

In that 61-possession game, Marquette had 51 possessions that didn’t involve fouls in the bonus (Syracuse fouled the last two minutes off missed shots). Of those 51 possessions, here’s how the unofficial paint touch situation broke down:


As it has been all year–all five years under Buzz Williams, for that matter–Marquette was best when getting to the paint for layups and free throw attempts. The Golden Eagles went to the free throw line 25 times on 30 paint touch possessions and scored 24 points in the paint.

One last interesting note is how well Todd Mayo played against the Orange. He played 16 minutes in the win, scoring nine points, handing out two assists and nabbing a steal. However, Mayo has played a combined 15 minutes against Davidson and Butler and recorded a DNP-CD against Miami.

Will he play more against Syracuse? He’s a classic zone-buster who can get to the basket when given room, and his outside shot is as good as anyone on the team when he’s able to get in a rhythm and play extended minutes.

Whether or not Mayo plays, paint touches will be vital to Marquette’s offensive success. Gardner and Otule on the low blocks will be important, while Jamil Wilson and Steve Taylor Jr. in the middle of the zone could do damage as well.

Categories: Home, Synergy


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