ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - It's hard to say which truism Duke shredded more thoroughly Friday night, in its 80-67 cruise over Syracuse: The reputation of the Orangemen's 2-3 zone defense, or the notion that March is a month for upperclassmen.
Not that it matters, except to Syracuse's pride and the statistics of Blue Devil rookies Shane Battier, William Avery and Elton Brand. Especially Elton Brand, a 6-foot-8 man-child who for stretches laid efficient waste to the Orangemen's inside defense.
All that matters, as we have been told and told again in the past nine days, is who moves on and who doesn't. Duke does, Syracuse doesn't, and possibly every Kentucky fan is oddly happy about getting a rematch of the 1992 region final, the Laettner Game, the last-second overtime win that sent the Commonwealth bawling in its bourbon.
Rhode Island 74,
TODAY'S GAMESArizona (30-4) vs.
Utah (28-3), 3:40 p.m.
UConn (32-4) vs.
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As for Duke, it fairly figured out Syracuse's much-hyped 2-3. ''Our zone is not a normal zone. We don't sit back in it and hope you miss,'' Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had promised.
Poor weekend plan
Actually, it was a lot like that. And really, when you're playing the top seed in the region and your best weapon is a zone defense, well, you probably shouldn't pack extra socks for the weekend. Basketball illiterates know a zone is designed to keep the opponent's big guys from scoring lots of points. Syracuse's seemed to be that special 2-3, encourage-the-entry-pass zone.
Brand was 5-for-6 from the field just in the first half. He was in the lane enough, he could have directed traffic.
The 2-3 should give problems to teams that don't shoot well from the wings. New Mexico shot 25 percent in its second-round loss last week. Four of Syracuse's five postseason opponents have shot less than 40 percent.
But Duke kills it from the wings: Thirty-seven percent from three-point range.
It takes poise and smarts to attack a difficult zone. Duke isn't dumb. Partly because it's, well, Duke. But also because its point guard is senior Steve Wojciechowski, who has survived as a Blue Devil because he is smart with the ball. When you are 5-foot-10 and average six points a game, you better do something beyond acquiring floor burns.
Wojciechowski (hereafter referred to as Wojo, so as not to blow out the Spell Check) and Avery kept Duke patient. When the outside stuff wasn't falling, both were able to get the ball in close to Brand and Battier.
Duke slipped early in the second half. Its lead drifted comfortably between six and 12 points, until Syracuse senior swingman Todd Burgan - a lefthander, with the smoothest stroke since Ken Griffey Jr. - popped in a three from the right wing, scored on an alley-oop dunk and with 12:29 left, the game was tied at 49.
''Our team at times is very confident, but we can have that swing where for certain moments, we're very young,'' Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had said Thursday. They hit a lull in the second half, until the freshmen bailed them out.
Brand made consecutive baskets from seeing-eye range, on nice feeds from Avery and Wojo. Battier dropped a 10-footer from the right baseline, and Avery stoned a gutsy, NBA three from the key. What was 49-all became 60-49 in five minutes. The freshman scored all 11 points.
''Avery to me was the key in that second half,'' Krzyzewski said. ''He got the ball to Elton when we really needed it. I thought he took the game over in the second half.''
Krzyzewski has said all year Duke needed its freshmen to play like upperclassmen, if the Blue Devils were to advance deep into March. Friday, they came to play.
''We're getting better,'' he said. ''Hopefully on Sunday we'll be even better.''
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