WASHINGTON — With the Big East, as we know it, coming to an end, Marquette coach Buzz Williams no doubt figured he’d seen the last of Syracuse’s zone for a while.
He’s a got a 290-pound player on the bench who can’t wait to face it again.
“I know about spacing,” Davante Gardner said Friday. “So they’ll change it up and try to lock me down.”
It takes a bit of bravado for a backup junior forward to have a “bring it on” attitude over Syracuse’s 2-3 fortress, especially after the way coach Jim Boeheim’s team dominated Indiana on Thursday night, but Gardner had a standout game against the zone last month and can’t wait for the rematch when the third-seeded Golden Eagles (26-8) face the fourth-seeded Orange (29-9) today with a berth in the Final Four on the line.
“I love playing against athletic guys,” Gardner said. “Because they think they can just stop me. But I use my weight to push them around.”
A pair of good runs in this NCAA Tournament has have created one more reunion between the conference foes, with the Orange seeking to avenge a 74-71 loss in Milwaukee on Feb. 25.
The star that night was Gardner, who went 7 for 7 from the field, 12 for 13 from the line, grabbed eight rebounds and scored a career-high 26 points.
“He got a lot of offensive rebounds, they found him in the lane, and he made good plays,” Boeheim said. “To me he’s a very good player down there, and we obviously have to do better with him, for sure.”
Williams has a message for anyone looking for a repeat performance from Gardner: Get real.
“I don’t think he will play that well again. And that’s only because he’s never played that well before or since,” the Marquette coach said. “So he played incredible. But we do need him to play. If you look at the games where we’ve won, the games where we’ve lost, Davante is a big pendulum swing.”
Gardner’s 14 points helped secure Marquette’s win over Miami in the round of 16 on Thursday, putting the Golden Eagles closer to their first Final Four appearance since 2003. Syracuse also hasn’t been among the last quartet in a decade, when Carmelo Anthony led the Orange to the national title.
Marquette and Syracuse didn’t play each other in that Final Four. Their only NCAA tournament meeting came in 2011, when the Golden Eagles won 66-62 in the second round.
“I don’t want to play Syracuse again,” Williams said. “(People say) ‘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. But it’s part of having so many good teams in our league that go to the NCAA tournament.”
The matchup gave both Boeheim and Williams another chance to wax nostalgic about the conference that has produced 18 Final Four teams in 33 years, including six in the last seven seasons with five different schools. Williams referenced some of the big names that made the league, while Boeheim lamented how football has become the driving sport behind conference alignments.
“There’s no question leaving the Big East will be sad, it already is in so many ways,” Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins said. “But it’s a chance for one more game and it will mean the Final Four.”
And, as with many games involving Syracuse, it will come down to how the opponent handles the zone. Even Boeheim agrees: It’s easier said than done.
“Everybody in this business knows what they need to do,” Boeheim said. “It’s a question of if you can execute it in the game. Indiana knew exactly what to do. Tom Crean has coached against me, he’s seen our defense, he knows. They knew what to do, it’s a question if they can do it.”
Crean’s Indiana team couldn’t do it. It’s time to see if Williams’ Golden Eagles, Gardner included, can do it again.