What's the biggest challenge with the zone defense, which is obviously a big staple at Syracuse?
Gard: I think the one thing is that they have really good players in it. That's the one thing that makes any defense you play really good. They've done it for a long time, as long as Coach Boeheim has been there. It's something they do every day and is hard to replicate in our practice session. At the same time, the length, the athleticism, the speed they can close out with, it's a combination. They have good players – athletic and long – and (the zone) is obviously something they have mastered over the years. You aren't going to trick it. You're going to have to be more solid and fundamentally sound, probably more so than ever before to get good looks against it.
What's the hardest part of that zone to replicate – the length, the speed or just they have been running it so long it's so fluid to them while you're just getting an introduction to it really quickly?
Gard: Probably A, B, and C. I don't know if you can point to one specific thing. Probably the biggest thing is it's just instinctual for them. They've done it since the day they've been on campus while we're trying to teach it to our guys for three days. Our parts aren't as big and quick as maybe their parts on their scout team.
You mention their speed and their length, but are they sometimes vulnerable to giving up second chances defensively?
Gard: They do and I think any zone, that's kind of the Achilles' Heel. Any time you talk about zone defenses, there aren't specific man block outs but area blocks out. They do give up some. I think they gave up quite a few to Kansas State, but they create a lot of havoc with it, shot blocking within in and they get a lot of offense out of their defense by jumping passing lanes, disruption offensive flow, those types of things. There are things they trade off for it but they have gained a lot more than they have given up over the years. A lot of people have tried to replicate it, but nobody has been able to do it exactly.
Gard: Obviously Montana will help prepare because we've seen it here a little bit, more so in Thursday's game than Saturday's game, but we don't see a lot of teams that play it in our league. Their length and athleticism is a lot like Ohio State, like a Michigan State. From that standpoint, we have seen similar type players. The decisions against it in terms of what you have to do and how sound you have to be (are key) because of how good they are at reading, and that's what you do. Whether it's zone teams or pressing teams, they try to read the next pass, try to bate you into making decisions that you shouldn't be making and if you don't use ball fakes or shot fakes, they tip those out and make quick decision on the other end.
How important is that Notre Dame tape – a team that is statistically similar to you – and how they were able to beat Syracuse?
Gard: I think you look at a variety of tapes. Obviously Notre Dame has played them and is more accustomed to them playing in the same league. We'll look at a variety of teams of how they have played them. You look at the teams that have success, the teams that have played them in the tournaments. You look at what work and what doesn't work, just like we do with every team. We try to consume as much information that we think is important and digest that.
You mention that your scout team can't accurately simulate what Syracuse is able to do with its zone. Is that the biggest challenge and how do you overcome that in your preparation?
Gard: We haven't been able to replicate a lot of teams all year. We don't have something that can replicate (Jared) Sullinger or Draymond Green from the size and the mobility of the guys we have seen individually. It'll still be about what we do and try to do it better than what they do with their thing. You have to knock down some shots, get on the glass and not turn the ball over because you can't give them freebees. The higher you keep climbing the ladder, your margin for error gets slimmer and slimmer.
What do you think is says about the program having made the NCAA Tournament's second weekend for the second straight year and fifth time in the last 10 seasons?
Gard: Consistency is one of the things we strive for in this program. Being consistent every single day and not changing, (especially) when we were 1-3 (in Big Ten play). I've always said Coach (Bo Ryan) is best when the clouds are the darkest and we face the most adversity. The truth is he didn't change anything, just went about preparing for Purdue, and I think that really helps batten down the hatches. When things are going well, we aren't preparing or practicing any different because we made the Sweet 16 two years in a row than what we did when we were 1-3 and going to place we'd won twice at in 40 years.
Players get into a routine and when they can get comfortable with what's going to be expected every day and try to meet those expectations, I think that helps. You try to alleviate the real high peaks and the real low valleys and try to be as consistent as possible. If you say true to that, over the course of time, hopefully the percentages will roll out in your favor.
Assistant coach Gary Close – in charge of Syracuse scouting report
You coached zone for a couple years when you were at Iowa. Is there any help there in telling the scout team what to do to prepare you guys?
Close: Maybe a little. I think the big thing is there zone is a little bit different in terms of what they are trying to do. Some zones are more compact and moer stationary. This zone tries to make things happen for them offensively. So it's very aggressive and I think they recruit to the positions that they play in terms of length and athleticism. People think they are standing in one area and covering one area and don't work hard. Real good zones work; they moving, anticipating and interactive, not unlike playing man-to-man defense. This team has been doing it for a long time and why they are as good as they are.
Did you watch any film of their zone with Fab Melo and what is the difference with him not on the floor?
Close: (I did and) I don't know if there is much difference at all. The guys they have come on are a lot like Fab. They are long, athletic, have a responsibility covering the basket and they do it well. I don't think from a defensive standpoint there is a whole lot of difference in what they are doing. Quite frankly they've had in out at times during the year anyway and play very well without him. I don't think it's that big of deal, just one less body in there.
Who are the guys that are the most disruptive and have caused teams problems?
Close: I think the interesting thing with their zone, they are the number one team in the country with steals. You don't think that's going to happen with a team playing a zone defense. That's how aggressive they are, that's how long they are, how athletic they are, how well they anticipate and, quite frankly, they've been doing it well. They feast on teams that are not good with the ball.
I don't think there is one guy that stands out. I think the four perimeter guys do a great job with their lengths and apply pressure on the ball. They just want to get a fingernail on it and if they can deflect it (and) flick it up, then they can grab it and go. Their centers have done a good job of protecting the rim, block shots (and) intimidate. It's definitely a defense where all five guys are working together. It's almost impossible to simulate. You have to do the best you can.
What makes this team special or different from other Wisconsin teams? Bo Ryan touched on that this team has improved maybe more so from the start of the season maybe than any other team.
Close: Yeah, I agree with him. There are a lot of guys playing for the first time extended minutes and extended roles. We lost some real good players and like Coach Gard said, we didn't get off to a terrific start in the Big Ten. I think their perseverance, their faith in one another that we can get through this and better days are ahead with hard work. We've had great effort from them in practice and games literally every day, and that's how you get better. You just have to keep working, plugging away and improving. I think you've seen it, a lot of our guys have gotten better and so as a team we've gotten better. We're playing pretty good basketball at the right time.
Close: I think so. I think one of the reasons there are a lot of rebounds is because teams don't shoot very well against them. There are a lot of balls that are missed and the way they turn you over compensates. Part of the reason they give up offensive rebounds is part of the reason why the defense is good. They are so active and flying around that they get themselves out of positions. There are a lot of loose balls to be had, so it'll be important for us to get rebounds because they are do good at shutting down the first shot.
Can you attribute any of their struggles against UNC-Asheville to Fab Melo not being in the lineup?
Close: I thought UNC-Asheville did a good job. They were well prepared. I think any time you lose a player, there is some adjustment. I think it was more how well they played than Syracuse not as playing as well as they would have like. To their credit, they found a way to win, but Asheville did a nice job. They've got a very experienced basketball team.
How impressed are you with their bench?
Close: The best player on their team might be coming off the bench in Dion Waiters. He's a terrific player. He's a scorer, he's athletic and he's strong. James Southerland comes in and gives another long, athletic body they can put on the floor. In fact he's one of their bigs that can shoot the three a little bit. It's probably their deepest team they have had in a long. They can rest people, guys can play harder and longer and full-court press a little more than they had in the past. That whole package of depth makes them a real good team.
How would you evaluate their guard play with Waiters, Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, who each do a little bit something different for them, and can you compare them to the level of Vanderbilt guards you just played in John Jenkins and Jeff Taylor?
Close: It's a good comparison. I don't know if anybody in the country that can shoot the ball to the level Jenkins can. He was unique and just terrific, so I don't think any of those guys are that dangerous as a 3-point shooter, although they could be. I think all of them are streaky enough. What impresses me about their guards is their ability to beat people off the dribble. They are good with the ball, like to play one-on-one and cause a lot of problems attacking, making plays for their bigs and their other guards. That's where they get a lot of their threes. They all can put it on the floor, shoot the three and why they are a high scoring team.