Syracuse continued its string of upsets in the 2018 NCAA tournament on Sunday afternoon as the No. 11 seed Orange knocked off No. 3 seed Michigan State, 55-53, to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the Midwest Regional.
Winners of three straight games after knocking off Arizona State in the First Four and TCU in the first round, Syracuse (23-13) pulled off another impressive victory in front of a very pro-Michigan State crowd in Detroit. Dictating the slow tempo with its 2-3 zone, Syracuse’s defense kept them in the game despite extreme foul trouble, cold perimeter shooting and issues on the defensive glass.
The Orange had to deal with guard Frank Howard (13 points) fouling out with over six minutes left in the game. Center Paschal Chukwu earned three fouls in the first half and had a tough time getting in a rhythm. Tyus Battle led the Orange with 17 points while Oshae Brissett chipped in 15 points to lead the Syracuse offense. Despite making only one three-pointer (1-for-8) and giving up 29 offensive rebounds to Michigan State, the Orange are moving on with another surprising win.
Although the Orange were literally the last team to make it into the field of 68 — and many had a gripe with their inclusion in the 2018 NCAA tournament — they are headed back to the Sweet Sixteen, as a double-digit seed, for the second time in three years.
Syracuse faced a similar situation when they made the Final Four run in 2016. Not many people thought the No. 10 seed Orange deserved to be in the field that year either. But Boeheim and his team surprised everybody by making it to the national semifinals before eventually falling to North Carolina.
The 2016 version of the Orange had multiple pros and four double-figure scorers. Tyler Lydon, Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson all came up huge at times during the team’s NCAA tournament run. Richardson’s second-half domination of Malcolm Brogdon and No. 1 seed Virginia in the Elite Eight might have single-handedly contributed to him being a first-round pick.
The 2018 version of the Orange doesn’t have nearly as much offensive firepower. Battle is a highly-touted former McDonald’s All-American who is capable of going for big scoring games. Brissett has developed his offensive game significantly to the point of also being a steady scorer. Battle and Brissett also don’t have nearly as many weapons around them to help. Howard is only other player besides the duo on the Syracuse roster averaging more than six points per game this season. As a team, Syracuse is only shooting 32 percent from three-point range — one of the worst marks in the country.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim deserves a lot of credit for taking this offensively-challenged team with a short bench to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Detractors might get annoyed by Syracuse’s reliance on the 2-3 zone, but it seems to be working out pretty well for the Orange during the past few NCAA tournaments. The ACC and its coaches seem more prepared to face Syracuse’s 2-3 zone during conference play. But the quick turnaround of the NCAA tournament might make the 2-3 zone a bit tougher to prepare for.
As Wally Szczerbiak astutely noted in the pregame show, Syracuse’s zone makes teams take a lot of awkward shots that they aren’t accustomed to taking. Unfortunately for the Orange, they face a No. 2 seed in Duke in the next round that will already be well-versed on their zone. The Orange and Blue Devils played each other in the ACC in February as Duke won a home game by double-digits in Marvin Bagley III’s return from injury.
It’s not an ideal matchup for Syracuse, but then again, they also took down Virginia with a 16-point second-half comeback two years ago. This year’s tournament has already taught us that anything is possible.
Michigan State (30-5) saw its season end in disappointing fashion as they shot only 25 percent (17-for-66) from the field and 21 percent (8-for-37) from three-point range. Point guard Cassius Winston led Michigan State with 15 points while All-American forward Miles Bridges struggled to a 4-for-18 shooting day to finish with 11 points.
Winston, Bridges, Josh Langford and Matt McQuaid were the only four players to attempt three-pointers for Michigan State on Sunday. None of them could get going. McQuaid’s only make came on an unlikely circus buzzer-beater that was blocked and caught in mid-air.
While a cold-shooting day was the main reason for Michigan State’s demise, head coach Tom Izzo will also be questioned for his strange frontcourt rotation. Senior Ben Carter (23 minutes) and freshman Xavier Tillman (22 minutes) both received more playing time than potential top-10 pick Jaren Jackson Jr. (15 minutes). Veteran senior Gavin Schilling didn’t play after playing 10 minutes per game during the season. Kenny Goins only played three minutes after averaging 14 minutes per contest.
Tillman (12 rebounds) deserved minutes because of his activity on the glass. But Carter had a pedestrian stat line of two points, two rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes of action. In a tight, one-possession game with the season on the line, Carter looked timid in the middle of the Syracuse 2-3 zone. It certainly didn’t help a Michigan State offense that desperately needed a jumpstart from literally anyone who could help.
Jackson has admittedly struggled down the stretch of his freshman season since a scintillating 27-point outing in a Big Ten win over Minnesota in February. He’s also a 39 percent three-point shooter on the season who could have been another floor-spacing option for Michigan State to try. He only attempted four field goals in what will likely be his final college game. It’ll be fascinating to hear Izzo’s logic behind his frontcourt rotation.
This is also a really bad loss for the Spartans. For the second time in three seasons, Michigan State was bounced before the second weekend when many people considered them serious national title contenders. On the recruiting trail, rivals will point out that a top draft pick like Jackson only played 15 minutes in the loss. Bridges generated a lot of positive headlines the last two seasons. The sophomore is also likely headed to the NBA after never making it past the second round.
The Spartans will probably lose a lot of talent this offseason with two potential lottery picks leaving. And with uncertainty looming about Michigan State’s future thanks to an explosive sexual misconduct investigation that was revealed during the season, it’s hard to say how the Spartans will look next season. Athletic director Mark Hollis already resigned and head coach Tom Izzo has fielded numerous questions about the report. That story probably isn’t going away anytime soon.
A program once known for consistency and stability is now facing a potentially tumultuous offseason.