Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When C.J. Fair blocked Vander Blue's 3- point attempt late in the second half on Saturday it looked eerily similar to a play made 10 years ago by another forward for Syracuse.
In that instance Hakim Warrick also came out to block a corner jump shot attempt from Kansas' Michael Lee. Warrick's rejection came with 1.5 seconds left to seal an 81-78 victory over the Jayhawks in the National Title game.
Fair and this year's Orange have another thing in common with the 2003 squad, besides the similarities of those two swats. This 2013 rendition is the first since that 2003 team to reach the Final Four.
The path for Syracuse this season was quite different than that of the 2003 team which was led by superstar Carmelo Anthony and Gary McNamara.
A regular season that saw them rise as high as No. 3 in the national rankings ended with losses in four of the last five games for the Orange. What looked like the death blow to the title hopes came in the finale when long-time rival Georgetown ripped the Orange apart in a 61-39 decision at the Verizon Center.
"We obviously had a very difficult last part of our schedule and didn't shoot the ball particularly well," head coach Jim Boeheim said. "But our defense was good throughout."
Strong defensive efforts carried the Orange through the first three rounds of the Big East Tournament, including a 58-55 win over the Hoyas in the semifinals. The Orange would bow to Louisville, which is also in the Final Four, in the conference title game, but got right back to work in the NCAA Tournament with bruising wins in its four East Regional games.
Other than his more than 900 career victories and now four Final Four appearances, Boeheim is probably best known for preaching the zone defense. That has not changed this season and during the tournament run it has looked as good as ever. The Orange are holding opponents to just 45.8 points per game on 29.1 percent shooting. That has included stout defense beyond the arc where their four opponents have netted just 19 shots on 109 attempts.
In their matchup in the Final Four the Orange's zone will be put to another stern test as they take on Michigan and Naismith Player of the Year front- runner Trey Burke. Boeheim is well aware of how dangerous the Wolverines, who rank sixth in the nation in field goal percentage (.485) and 25th in scoring (75.5 ppg), are going to be.
"Offensively they're by far the biggest challenge we've had this year," Boeheim said."We've played some really good teams, but we haven't played anybody as good offensively as Michigan."
Boeheim might be selling his team short though as the Orange have already dominated against another Big Ten school that could lay claim to the moniker of best offensive team in the country.
In fact the Orange's most impressive defensive display of the season came in their Sweet 16 victory over Indiana. Long considered on the short list of favorites to cut down the nets in Atlanta, the Hoosiers looked completely out of sorts against Syracuse. Indiana was a top 10 scoring team in the country this season but was held to a season-low 50 points against the Orange, while also tying for a season-high with 19 turnovers.
"We've played the zone the best that we've played it probably in all the years we've been playing zone," Boeheim said.
A big reason for the zone's tremendous success this season has been the personnel. Boeheim obviously has a prototype for ideal players in his system with the key being athletic guards and forwards with tons of length. Anthony, Warrick, Demetris Nichols and Kris Joseph are names that come to mind that exemplify that type of athlete on past teams.
Fair has highlighted this season's batch with James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams also fitting the mold.
Carter-Williams runs the point for the Orange but at 6-foot-6 has the size to wreak havoc on opposing backcourts. The sophomore has done just that this season as he led the Big East in steals (2.7 spg).
"He makes me play harder on defense just seeing how active he is, being able to get steals and things like that, it's contagious," senior Brandon Triche said of Carter-Williams, "He makes the winning plays. It's not all about points for him its about winning."
It might not be at the forefront of his mind every game but Carter-Williams has been making an even bigger splash in the NCAA Tournament with his offensive production. After being more of a secondary option as a scorer during the regular season, Carter-Williams has transformed in the tournament, knocking down shots from the outside, while consistently putting the ball on the floor to get to the rim. All this while facing adversity in his personal life as his home in Massachusetts burned down in March. To say he has been tough would be an understatement.
It hasn't been a solo act for Carter-Williams though as he has received plenty of help from yet another talented roster for Boeheim.
Southerland has largely erased the stigma put on him earlier in the season when he missed six games for academic issues, by turning into arguably the most lethal 3-pointer shooter in the country. No matter where on the floor he catches the ball, when the 6-foot-8 forward goes up for a shot it just seems like its going to find the bottom of the net.
Case in point, late in the game against Marquette on Saturday, Southerland hoisted a desperation 3-pointer with a defender draped all over him but it didn't seem to matter as he drilled the shot.
"I think all my shots are going in," Southerland, who set the Big East Tournament record this season with 19 made 3-pointers, said." Every shot I take feels good, so I don't think anything's going to miss."
Then there is Fair and Triche who have been the steady forces on both ends with each also proving to be integral cogs in the machine-like zone defense as well. Fair has been in double figures in all four tournament contests and is the best player on the team in creating his own offense. Triche has struggled a bit with his shot during the tourney (15-of-36) but his leadership as a senior can't be put into a box score.
This will be Boeheim's fourth team to make the Final Four. However, he doesn't see the point of celebrating an appearance in what amounts to a semifinal.
"I've told the players, when you make the Final Four its obviously right now a great reason to be happy, but if you don't win the Final Four you will be more unhappy than you would be if you lost today," Boeheim said after the win over Marquette.
Boeheim has been on both sides of that coin. Perhaps Fair's block was a sign that this team will finish up like the 2003 squad and not the 1987 and 1996 versions.