Syracuse was the last at-large team in the bracket and had to play in the First Four play-in game. Now the Orange are coming off a huge win against championship-hopeful Michigan State and could really turn the tournament upside down with another victory over Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke. How did we get here? And what should we expect from the world-beating Orange moving forward?

Cuse’s First Three Tourney Games

The Orange started off the Big Dance in the 11-seed play-in game against another team that likely should’ve been left out: Arizona State. Cuse closed as a one-point dog and took it 60-56. Next up was Texas Christian, and the Orange won 57-52 as five-point dogs. And, finally, the big upset against Michigan State: They closed as 10-point dogs and somehow held on for a 55-53 victory.

Those lines were probably correct, and it’s difficult to make a case that the teams Syracuse beat were overrated. The Spartans were rare in that they boasted a top-10 offense and defense, and they came into the game as one of the best shooting teams in the country. Even after the brutal Cuse game in which the Spartans shot just 25.8 percent from the field overall and 8-of-37 (21.6 percent) from the 3-point line, they still rank 12th in the nation with a 56.9 percent effective field goal rate and 12th with a 40.0 percent 3-point mark. Get this: Michigan State took 66 shots — TWENTY-FOUR more than Syracuse — and lost by two. I’ve been staring at that box score since the game ended trying to figure out how State lost that game.

 

It’s not as if TCU was bad at shooting the ball, either: The Horned Frogs rank top-10 in 3-point percentage and top-15 in eFG%. These are the teams that should have been able to take advantage of Syracuse’s annoying zone, but that wasn’t the case. Due to excellent rotations and closeouts and a lot of unlucky breaks, these teams were way worse against the Orange than they were all season long:

Additionally, it’s not as if these teams were notably bad against zone defenses. Michigan State came into the game in the 89th percentile nationally in offensive efficiency against zone defenses. Almost all of the key Spartans are above-average 3-point shooters who can whip the ball around the zone. Again, that Syracuse beat Michigan State makes no sense, and there are only three theories to explain it:

  1. Syracuse’s zone defense stepped up and really bothered Michigan State.
  2. Michigan State wasn’t ready for the zone on short rest.
  3. Michigan State (and probably TCU) got unlucky shooting the ball.

Let’s address the second point quickly. While this isn’t a perfect data point, we can see how the Orange’s opponents have historically performed against the spread in the NCAA Tournament based on how many days they had to prepare for the zone. Per Bet Labs, the Orange have been better with fewer days off, but they’ve still been positive ATS even against opponents with more time to prepare (data since 2005).

  • Syracuse with three-plus days between games: 9-7 ATS
  • Syracuse with fewer than three days between games: 8-4 ATS

Thus, I’m not putting a lot of stock into the idea that Michigan State “wasn’t ready.” The most likely explanation for Michigan State’s loss is a combination of the first and last points above, and No. 3 is probably underrated by the public and analysts alike. It’s easy to give credit to the zone — it did take the Spartans out of their element and make them shoot a ton of 3s — but Michigan State missed a ton of open looks. If a couple of those shots go in, I wouldn’t be writing this article. Syracuse has a unique style of play, and while it lends itself to upsets it also has very small room for error. That’s especially true when we look at the Orange on the other end of the floor.

On offense, Syracuse is one of the worst teams in the nation, ranking an atrocious 325th in eFG% and 139th in offensive efficiency. The Orange almost completely rely on getting to the line and grabbing offensive boards, and they were surprisingly able to do at least one of those effectively against the Spartans. They got to the line 31 times and hit 24 free throws; they had a +15 free throw attempt differential, and their differential against against Arizona State was also large.

But can Syracuse beat Duke with its style of play?

How Does Syracse Match Up Against Duke?

This is a tough question because the answer is “not well,” although that’s better than what I would have said before the Michigan State game. Duke has enough shooting with Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen to keep the zone honest, and the Devils have a massive advantage inside. One of the weakest parts of a zone defense is cleaning up the glass, as rotations can sometimes leave defenders scrambling to find a man to box out. That could be death for Syracuse against Duke, which ranks first in the country in offensive rebound rate. Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr. could dominate inside, and they both did in the first meeting between these teams this year. The Devils won easily 60-44 in Cameron, and that ended up being Syracuse’s worst offensive performance of the year.

 

Duke plays a zone of its own, and, ironically, the Orange are poorly equipped to handle it. They could have some success getting second-chance points, but that’s where their advantages end. They rely on dribble penetration, which isn’t possible against a zone; offenses have to penetrate zones by passing. Further, zones force teams to take perimeter shots, and the Orange are literally one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the nation, ranking 328th in that regard.

It’s scary to count out Syracuse after they have reeled off three straight victories, the latter of which was truly shocking, but this seems like a matchup that is too brutal to overcome. The Orange’s best chance is to slow this game way down and limit possessions as much as possible. John Ewing wrote about a pace trend before the tournament started: Underdogs playing at fewer than 70 possessions per 40 minutes have historically gone about 59 percent ATS in March. The Orange are one of the slowest teams in college basketball, ranking 345th out of 351 teams, averaging just 63.0 possessions/40 minutes. They will wait out the full shot clock before jacking up a shot, and if they get a second chance they’ll pull it out and do the same thing.

For that reason, it might be wise, even if you think Duke will advance, to look at the double-digit spread for Syracuse, or — what I personally prefer — the over/under of 133.5. Duke seems to be a ridiculously tough matchup for the Orange this weekend, but, hey, March has been pretty darn mad this year. Maybe the Devils will go 4-of-40 from 3 and the Orange will keep on rolling.

Photo credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports