Michigan State, a team that lost exactly four games all season before the NCAA tournament, is now on its way home thanks to the fact Tom Izzo could not maneuver past a zone. That it was the zone of a team that barely squeaked into the tournament makes it embarrassing; that the zone belongs to Syracuse just makes it annoying.
The Spartans lost to the Orange 55-53 Sunday afternoon, posting their lowest scoring total of the season by a full nine points. On offense, Syracuse relied on a combined effort from Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett, who combined for 32 points. But it was Jim Boeheim’s zone that won the game for the Orange, as it yet again made a top-tier offense look downright mortal.
While the Spartans should be the kind of team that can have a shot against the legendary Syracuse zone—not too many teams have a player capable of scoring from most anywhere on the floor like Miles Bridges—they look flustered for every single one of the 40 minutes they faced it on Sunday.
The Spartans were almost religious in their refusal to collapse the zone from the lane, and it showed. The Spartans went 17-of-66 from the field, or 28.6 percent—of those 66 shots, 37 came from behind the three-point line, which is 17 more attempts than Michigan State averaged all season. Bridges, Josh Langford, and Cassius Winston combined to shoot 9-of-42, and still, Michigan State relied on them to provide 29 of their total 53 points. This hamstrung the Spartans late in the game; as Syracuse made its run, Michigan State looked confused and stagnant. After a Winston jumper gave Michigan State a 48-43 lead with 5:43 left, the Orange went on a 7-0 run—the Spartans never converted another field goal, relying only on five free throws for their points. If it weren’t coming against a team that’s been to two Final Fours in the past six years, it’d be a downright charming story.
Sunday’s performance wasn’t anything new. Unlike Virginia’s heralded packhouse defense, Syracuse’s zone hasn’t shown signs of cracking in this tournament. The upset marks the third time in five days (don’t forget that First Four play-in game) that the Orange’s zone has held a top-40 scoring offense under 60 points—Arizona State managed just 56 points, while TCU went for 52 points. Now, very soon, Syracuse will have to keep up with a team capable of pushing the bounds of that defense, as the Orange will now move on to face Duke in the Sweet 16.
The Blue Devils edged out the Orange just three weeks ago 60-44 in Durham, back when it wasn’t even clear whether Syracuse would be playing in this tournament or that one they keep showing on ESPN. Duke’s been on the receiving end of a whole bunch of love for its dominant opening-weekend performances—Marvin Bagley and the Blue Devils scored a total 176 points in two games against Iona and Rhode Island. While the wins were impressive, they also came against a pair of defenses that, throughout the regular seasons, proved to be less than great, ranking 80th or worse in scoring defense.
Going into Friday’s rematch, Syracuse should be feeling pretty good about itself. In beating Michigan State, the Orange have proved themselves to be capable of downing one of the best teams in the nation while dog-tired. Syracuse is hot, it was quite literally the final team to sneak into the tournament, and now the Orange get a full five day’s rest and a shot at another high-octane offense they already know they can hold to 60 points.
Oh my god, this is going to come down to the Duke zone, isn’t it?