Syracuse's 2-3 zone last night looked invincible versus the number one offense in the country. Indiana had scored more points per possession than their opponents (on average) give up in every game this season until Temple and Syracuse. Syracuse's defensive dominance had people wondering why a team would play anything other than zone. I went back and looked at Syracuse's defensive performances throughout the season. Sure enough, their worst of the year (allowing 1.21 points per possession) came to none other than Marquette.
It seems like a no-brainer to zone Marquette. Buzz Williams' squad is having one of the best offensive seasons ever for a team that shoots the three ball so poorly. Marquette ranks 19th in offensive efficiency in the nation despite shooting just 30.5% from three on the season. In theory, a 2-3 zone forces an offense to make deep shots. Marquette doesn't have the personnel to consistently knock down threes, but they do have Davante Gardner. Gardner is one of the most unique big men in the country. He is listed at 290 pounds, shoots 84.4% from the foul line, and can euro step. He also just happened to have his best performance of the season against the Orange in February.
Gardner went a perfect 7-7 from the field and went 12-13 from the foul line against Cuse the first time around. He also had just one turnover and four offensive rebounds. Gardner is a zone killer in the paint. His big body and nice touch disrupt what the Orange try to do defensively. First, let's look at the most obvious impact Gardner has against the zone: Occupying space.
In the photo above Gardner seals his man and clears out the lane. The result of this play was actually a basket for Jamil Wilson (the other guy posting up down low). Gardner constantly makes contact with the zone, clearing space in the process for others to work.
The following is a look at the three ways Davante Gardner is a zone buster:
1. Inside Finishing
If you want to know about Syracuse's shot blocking abilities, just ask Cody Zeller. Last night nothing came easy for Zeller and Indiana. However, Gardner is effective in a much different manner. He doesn't rely on athleticism as much as strength and a great touch. When Gardner got the ball down low against the zone, he used his body to prevent being blocked and to get to the foul line.
2. Offensive Rebounding
The zone is notoriously susceptible to second chance opportunities. Gardner is 89th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. In the first meeting, he got four offensive rebounds from his positioning and strength. Maybe the most important aspect of his offensive rebounds is the ensuing put back. Gardner was able to clear space and get easy baskets down low off Marquette misses.
3. Foul Line Jumper
In the high post, Gardner forces Syracuse to respect his foul line jump shot. I found four plays where Gardner's ability to either force the zone extend or knock down a jump shot led to Marquette points. The first play the zone extends and Gardner hits the open man down low. The second play Gardner starts at the high post and cuts down the lane during a baseline drive for an easy lay-up. Finally, the last two plays Syracuse doesn't get out far enough and Gardner hits both a floater and a jumper.
Marquette doesn't need a great three point shooting performance to advance to the Final Four. In the first meeting, Marquette shot just 5-21 from three and yet still posted the best points per possession total of any Syracuse opponent this season. Gardner is the straw the stirs the drink against the zone for the Golden Eagles.