Michigan State was able to hold off the No. 14-seeded Bucknell Bison on Friday night in front of a virtual home crowd at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. On Sunday afternoon, they’ll face another challenge in the form of Syracuse.
The No. 11-seeded Orange upset No. 6 TCU on Friday night 57-52, thanks to Marek Dolejaz’s team-high 17 points and Oshae Brissett’s 15.
The Slovakian freshman’s 17-point outburst (13 of which coming in the first half) was three shy of his season high of 20, which he scored in Syracuse’s first round ACC Tournament win over Wake Forest 11 days ago.
Dolejaz fouled out of the game with 6:12 left to play. Had he not committed his fifth personal foul, it’s probable he would have eclipsed his career-high point total of 20. He carried Syracuse for most of the game, but for the bulk of the season, it hasn’t been that way.
The Orange “Big Three” of sophomore guard Tyus Battle, the junior guard Brissett and freshman forward Frank Howard combined to shoot only 27 percent from the field and accounted for just 29 points in the five-point victory on Friday.
Battle, who leads Division I in minutes played per game (38.9) hadn’t been held under 10 points since November 22, a win against Toledo. But being SU’s third game in five days, fatigue may have played a factor throughout those 40 minutes.
Despite the below-average scoring from those three, Jim Boeheim’s patented zone defense gave TCU fits. Syracuse held the Horned Frogs to 52 points, a far cry from their season average of 83 (19th in the nation). It was their lowest points output this season.
“Our defense was fabulous,” said Boeheim, who has five Final Four appearances and one national title (2003) in his 42 years in upstate New York. “We just held two teams that averaged 80s, well into the 80s, to 56 and 52. That’s pretty good.”
TCU head coach Jamie Dixon was 15-6 against Syracuse coming into this matchup, dating back to his days at Pittsburgh. But it’s just something about the Orange in March.
In 2016, Syracuse was a No. 10 seed and labeled by most as a team that shouldn’t have even been in the 68-team field. But they made an improbable run to the Final Four, most notably topping No. 1 seed Virginia in the Elite Eight. Boeheim even admitted that the Orange weren’t worthy of getting an at-large bid that year.
Fast forward two years, and you have an almost identical scenario. ‘Cuse won their First Four game in Dayton against Arizona State after being the last team in the field according to the selection committee. They followed that up with an upset of No. 6 TCU and now have a date with a perennial national championship contender in Michigan State.
“We know they’re well-coached, have some really good players,” Battle said of the Spartans. “They’re going to be a tough team. They have good bigs, good shooters, a good point guard. So just a good all-around team. But if our zone is active, moving, we’ll be fine.”
One of Michigan State’s four losses came in November against Duke in the Champion’s Classic. The Blue Devils played a zone defensive scheme against the Spartans in Chicago, and it gave MSU an incredible amount of trouble.
Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Nick Ward scored 19 points apiece back then, but no other Spartan managed to finish in double figures. MSU turned the ball over 17 times (to Duke’s nine) and was outrebounded by 12 (46-34).
“His zone is maybe bigger and taller and better than ever,” MSU head coach Tom Izzo said of Boeheim’s defense. “The size that they present is, I think, difficult for everybody. I don’t think many teams have shot it very well against them or scored very well against them.”
“One of the good things about our team over the years is we were able to play fast or play slow. And hopefully we can speed up the tempo. But they’re definitely going to slow it down. And we’ve got to figure out a way to win whether it’s going in a slow-down game and a smashmouth game or whether it’s a race-horse game. So I’m looking forward to the challenge. I think our players are. We’ll see what happens.”
MSU has faced other teams with zone defenses throughout the season, but emerged victorious. This time, though, may be the toughest zone they’ve seen yet.
“I mean, Jim (Boeheim) doesn’t come out of a zone no matter what,” Izzo said. “He’s played more zone defense than I’ve played man. And we play a lot of man. So it’s a system. It’s a culture there, to be honest with you. I mean, you go there and you just you’re going to fit into that culture.”
“He recruits to it. He believes in it. He sells it. And he does a hell of a job coaching it.”
Syracuse is known for the zone. That’s what they’re synonymous with. Sunday should be a defensive battle with the potential for superstars to shine.
- 2017-2018 Syracuse Orange, 21-13 (8-10, 10th in ACC)
- 67.3 PPG (313th), 37.4 RPG (83th), 10.9 APG (330th), 64.3 points allowed (14th)
- Tyus Battle (6-6, 205 lbs): 19.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.9 APG, 40% FG
- Oshae Brissett (6-8, 210 lbs): 14.9 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.0 APG, 34% 3PT
- Frank Howard (6-5, 205 lbs): 14.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.9 SPG
- Paschal Chukwu (7-2, 228 lbs): 5.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 66% FG
Tip-off between the No. 3-seeded Spartans and the No. 11-seeded Orange is set for 2:40 p.m. ET from Little Caesars Arena. Television coverage can be found on CBS.
The winner will face No. 2 Duke in the Sweet 16 in Omaha, Neb.