Joseph White

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 went on. “Because they think they can just stop me. But I use my weight to push them around.”

The Big East is turning into the league that just won’t die. Syracuse is leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference in the fall, and Marquette is one of the so-called “Catholic 7” basketball-centric schools breaking away from the pack and taking the Big East name with them. Two good runs in this NCAA Tournament have created one more reunion, 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.”

But Gardner’s confidence aside, Williams has a message for anyone looking for a repeat performance: 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 four 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 past 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.