‘Cuse Countdown Analysts Preview Syracuse’s Matchup with Michigan State
The stakes for Syracuse against Michigan State are clear. With a Sweet 16 spot up for grabs, what do the Orange need to beat the Spartans. Our analysts explain what their keys to the game are and predict if Syracuse can keep dancing.
Key to the Game: Make Threes from a Few Steps Behind the Arc
Watching the Spartans take on Bucknell on Friday, Michigan State University allowed Bucknell to make 11 of 20 3-point attempts, and many of those came from a step or two behind the line. The Spartans seemed to get a bit laxed in their coveraged when it came to defending threes, which is something Tyus Battle, Frank Howard, and Oshae Brissett should take note of. If the Orange’s shooters get in a rhythm and can make shots from a bit deeper than normal, Syracuse has an opportunity to hurt MSU from deep.
Prediction: Michigan State 70-62
Syracuse has scratched and clawed its way into the Round of 32, and this team certainly sparks the “why not us?” mentality among Orange fans. The Spartans are on a higher level than the opponents Syracuse has faced so far. Though the Orange has the size advantage, Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr. have the ability to physically wear down Paschal Chukwu and Oshae Brissett down low. The Orange will keep fighting in this one, but against one of the nation’s top-tier programs, this looks to be where the dance ends.
Key to the Game: No Fly Zone
If Syracuse is going to win this game it will be because the zone held the Spartans below the teams season average. In Syracuse’s first two NCAA Tournament victories this season, the Orange held Arizona State and TCU who both average over 80 points per game to just 56 and 52 points respectively. Yes, I know this Michigan State team poses all sorts of new issues with two projected top-10 picks. Yes, MSU averages over 80 points per game, leads the nation in assists per game and is top-10 in rebounds per game. But, the zone just suffocated the second best team in assists per game in the nation in TCU. So if this zone can continue to rotate well and make the Spartans use the whole shot clock, Syracuse will have a shot.
Prediction: Syracuse 68-65
Nothing is impossible, a 16 seed just beat a 1 seed. The optics of this matchup may not favor Syracuse, but when many looked at the past two matchups for SU similar things were said. But, the 2-3 zone has been fantastic so far in this tournament. If Syracuse can once again control the pace of this game then the Orange will have a puncher’s chance. Once again it will come down to who can make the big plays down the stretch. Against the Spartans, I think the Orange will make those plays.
Key to the Game: Knock Down Threes
Michigan State boasts the best inside-the-arc defense in the country, meaning inside looks will be hard to come by for Syracuse. In Michigan’s Big 10 title game win over the Spartans, UM’s offensive philosophy was simple: instead of going inside, the Wolverines took more than 20 threes, converting on nine of them. And for a struggling SU offense, ‘Cuse needs to replicate what the UMich did if it wants to knock off no. 3 seed.
Prediction: Syracuse 61-60
Syracuse’s calling card all season has been its defense—just ask Arizona State and TCU. And MSU’s struggles this year have come against defensive-minded teams, including losses to Duke and Michigan (twice), two top-30 teams in defensive efficiency in the country. It may be a stretch to think SU can take down the Big 10 regular season champs, but the ‘Cuse’s ability to stop its opponents gives it a chance to march on.
Key to the Game: Match MSU’s Physicality
While Syracuse is the country’s tallest team, Michigan State may be the country’s buffest. The Spartans’ frontcourt could double as the school’s defensive front seven on the gridiron. Miles Bridges (225 pounds), Jaren Jackson, Jr. (242 pounds), Nick Ward (245 pounds), and even Xavier Tillman (260 pounds) are absolute forces around the rim. The Orange’s heaviest player is Paschal Chukwu, who checks in at 228 pounds. Expect the Spartans to look to exploit this advantage down low. Number 14 seed Bucknell was able to keep it close with the Big Ten regular season champs by matching its physicality. Syracuse has to adopt that philosophy. The Spartans hit just eight threes per game this season, so the game will be won or lost in the paint. Asking Chukwu, Marek Dolezaj, and Oshae Brissett to go toe-to-toe with such a diesel group may be too tall of a task, considering the Orange’s lack of depth. But they need to answer the bell if ‘Cuse wants to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
Prediction: Michigan State 72-61
Syracuse heads into this matchup after earning possibly two of the ugliest NCAA tournament wins in recent memory. Yes, a win is a win. But Michigan State is on a completely different level than Arizona State and TCU. Syracuse’s defense has carried it this entire year, but I can’t trust this Orange offense to compete with one of the most talented, well-coached teams in the country. This stingy Spartan defense allows just 65.2 PPG. Cassius Winston is a pesky guard who will harass Orange ball handlers, and 6-foot-5 guard Joshua Langford can match both Tyus Battle and Frank Howard’s size. Of course, anything can happen in March. I just don’t think the Syracuse defense can keep Miles Bridges under wraps for a full 40 minutes, and its offense won’t be able to keep pace.
Key to the Game: Force MSU To Settle For Threes
Michigan State has the clear size advantage in this one. Perhaps the Spartans two best players, 6-foot-11 center Jaren Jackson Jr. and 6-foot-7 forward Miles Bridges are both huge matchup problems for Syracuse down low. The two of them are both likely going to be lottery picks this summer and it’s hard to imagine Paschal Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe holding them in check while also staying out of foul trouble in the process. That being said, the Orange needs to make Michigan State beat it from the outside. If the Spartans settle for 3-pointers like Arizona State and TCU, SU just might have a shot. If not, then Tom Izzo’s bunch could feast inside and put this one out of reach early.
Prediction: Michigan State 74-71
Logic says Syracuse and it’s limited bench should run out of gas and get crushed by a way more talented Michigan State team in this one. However, I have a hard time seeing this Syracuse team getting blown-out. The Orange is playing some of the best defense of any team left in the tournament right now and has nothing to lose at this point. Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj and the rest of the supporting cast are playing with house-money. So I really don’t see this team going down without a fight. But in the end, I’ll give the slight edge to Tom Izzo and company because I expect SU to get in foul-trouble early and struggle on the glass.
Key to the Game: Don’t Play Like an Underdog
While the Spartans come in with just four losses this season, Michigan State still sits far away from a first seed. MSU doesn’t have a better resume than most of the teams Syracuse played week in and week out in the ACC. Its ability to coast in an easier conference simply means the Spartans aren’t battle tested, and the glow that emanates from Tom Izzo’s program should not scare the Orange. TCU was easy to see as a winnable game. MSU can’t be any different. A SU squad that went out in front early against the Horned Frogs needs to use the same attitude to beat Michigan State.
Prediction: Michigan State 67-60
Syracuse’s trip to Dayton may make it feel like the Orange have made a deep run in the tournament, but playing its third game in five days, SU will drop in the second round. Tyus Battle’s 22 points total in the tournament is his lowest scoring output over a two game stretch this season. Syracuse has limited offensively talented teams in TCU and ASU, but Michigan State is not just the most potent attack the Orange have seen so far. The Spartans possess the best defense on a points-per-possession basis in the entire Midwest region. MSU’s balance is going to overwhelm an overworked Syracuse team.
Key to the Game: Watch Michigan State’s Game Film Against Duke
Through two games in this year’s NCAA Tournament, we’ve seen Syracuse’s 2-3 stymie a pair of offensively talented teams that rely upon drive-and-kick opportunities from behind the 3-point arc. Now the Orange faces a Michigan State squad that, although shoots 41 percent from downtown, is built from its strong forward play. Against the Blue Devils’ zone defense in November, MSU’s Jaren Jackson Jr. played effectively from the free throw line area, causing a ton of reaction from all five Duke defenders. That efficiency from Jackson allowed Miles Bridges to operate from the wing and knock down five triples, while sophomore Nick Ward occupied from two-to-five feet away from the basket with his strong back-to-the-basket moves. Each member of the frontcourt triumvirate scored 19 points in that early-season matchup. For SU, how far Paschal Chukwu decides to step forward once the ball reaches the middle of the zone, along with the wing defender’s attention to the potential lottery pick Bridges, may be decisive factors in this one.
Prediction: Michigan State 74-63
Michigan State’s 13-day layoff showed in its sluggish first half against 14th-seeded Bucknell on Friday, but Sparty’s talent, including two likely top-ten NBA Draft selections, proved mighty in the second half against a mid-major team. That narrative should remain the same against a talent-stricken Syracuse roster that solely relies upon the wizardry of Jim Boeheim’s tactical gem. If Tom Izzo’s bigs play aggressively on the block, we could see players like Chukwu or Marek Dolezaj in foul trouble again, which would devastate the ‘Cuse’s already-slim chances. Should we be shocked if SU hands MSU only its fifth loss of the season? No, because predicting the result of a Syracuse men’s basketball game is as hard as correctly guessing your old MySpace password. In the end, the 42-year head coach has continually expressed how this year’s team overachieved all season, and a surprising Round of 32 finish to the 2017-18 campaign is still to be applauded.
Key to the Game: Slow it Down, Syracuse
Coming off two games in five days, my question for SU on game day will be the Orange’s conditioning. This team only runs seven players deep, and Tyus Battle and Frank Howard both rank in the top 10 in the NCAA in total minutes played this season. The worst thing for ‘Cuse would be for Michigan State to come out and push the tempo and run in transition early in the ball game, because it would push Syracuse to the limit in terms of energy the players have in the tank down the final 10 minutes of the game. This would most seriously effect Oshae Brissett, Tyus Battle and Frank Howard, who need all the stamina they can muster to score for SU. If this game finishes with both teams under 60 points, I think Syracuse pulls off a bracket busting upset over one of the best teams in the country.
Prediction: Michigan State 64-57
This year, the Spartans have struggled against the 2-3 zone. The offense failed to crack Duke’s zone earlier in the year when the Blue Devils had just begun to experiment with the scheme before fully implementing it as a part of the game plan later in the year. That, and the possibility of a rough shooting day, gives SU hope for the match-up. However, with Miles Bridges averaging 17 PPG and Michigan State hitting 50 percent of its field goals on the season, the odds favor the Spartans offense over the Orange’s rock solid defense. Way crazier things have happened in the tournament, but when it’s all said and done, Michigan State could be the team cutting down the nets.