Wojo: Beware Spartans, Syracuse can aggravate its way to an upset
Detroit — There’s a moment in almost every game, for every team, when frustration bubbles. Shots aren’t falling, calls aren’t coming, ball’s not bouncing.
Michigan State will run into a few of those moments Sunday, almost assuredly, because Syracuse is the most annoying opponent imaginable, with its weird zone defense and its whiny, wily coach. And here’s the untold secret of the NCAA Tournament: Can you handle frustration as the clock ticks down?
The lingering buzz in college basketball Saturday was about top-seeded Virginia’s staggering 74-54 loss to No. 16 Maryland-Baltimore County, an upset of unprecedented proportions. That was the field’s No. 1 overall seed caving to the pressure as an upstart just kept hitting shots.
Everyone saw it, and will talk about it for a long time. The Spartans saw it and talked about it in reflective tones as they prepared to meet Syracuse at 2:40 p.m. Sunday at Little Caesars Arena.
“We all know how fragile this is,” guard Cassius Winston said. “If you take your foot off the gas for one second, anything can happen. You gotta go out there and play like it’s your last game.”
That’s not a new lesson, of course. Tom Izzo has unabashedly and repeatedly brought up the loss to 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State two years ago, turning the worst defeat of his career into a lasting tool. Syracuse is not Middle Tennessee State, obviously. Jim Boeheim is a legendary coach and the Orange have one of the tallest teams in the country, all arms and legs and aggravation.
But they’re an 11 seed for a reason, barely making the field, barely edging Arizona State 60-56 in a play-in game, then barely besting TCU 57-52. Their offense is tedious, their shooting percentage (.416) a robust 319th in the country. But there’s no way the Spartans are overlooking them — literally no way, with a starting lineup that measures 7-2, 6-9, 6-8, 6-6 and 6-5 — because they’ve heard and seen the horror stories.
This is how it is when a team prepares for Syracuse (22-13) and its infamous zone. Anything Michigan State can do well — rebound, play defense, pound the ball inside — is mitigated by five lanky defenders standing in and around the paint with outstretched arms, making you wait and work for a shot that might never come. TCU had one of the most-potent offenses in the country and was 3-for-17 on 3-pointers, leaving Boeheim in his best aw-shucks mood, lamenting Syracuse’s offensive woes while extolling that defense.
These teams haven’t met since the 2000 Midwest Regional at The Palace when Michigan State rolled to a 75-58 victory, but not a whole lot has changed since then. It’s far from a vintage Orange team but has scorers in Tyus Battle (19.3 ppg) and Oshae Brissett (14.9), a pesky point guard in Frank Howard and a shot-blocking demon in 7-2 Paschal Chukwu.
“His zone is maybe bigger and taller and better than ever,” Izzo said. “The size they present is difficult for everybody. Hopefully we can speed up the tempo, but they’re definitely going to slow it down.”
The Spartans would love to crank it up and get the crowd roaring, but it’s not so simple. Syracuse’s defense ranks eighth in the country, impressive considering it lost 13 games, and allows opponents to hit only 32.6 percent of 3-pointers. Boeheim’s on-court style matches his communication style — droll and deliberate, quirky and tricky, sharper than you think.
“They can kind of get lackadaisical and lull you to sleep, and then you make a pass and they steal it,” said Joshua Langford, who busted out with 22 points in Michigan State’s 82-78 opening victory against Bucknell. “The biggest thing is, make sure you stay focused and not make soft passes. Be aggressive in everything you do.”
Much of that falls on Winston, naturally. And while he has struggled mightily with his shot lately — 2-for-16 on 3s his past three games — his floor game has been excellent. Against the zone, the key is not to zone out. The only other zone Michigan State has faced was Duke’s, but Syracuse plays it like no other team, exclusively and diligently.
“I just have to make sure we don’t get impatient,” Winston said. “There’s going to be times a zone like that can be frustrating. I’ve got to do a good job of keeping everybody together, keeping our heads together.”
You can’t take a bad shot because it might be a full clock before you get another. But you can’t turn down a decent shot because it might be a full clock before you get another.
Hence, the aggravation. Slow-pace teams are especially capable of pulling upsets because every possession is more valuable. They’re also prone to being upset, as Virginia showed. With all due respect to the Cavaliers’ Tony Bennett, a great coach, that program has long been a prime candidate for the first top seed to lose to a 16.
In his blunt manner, Boeheim defended Bennett Saturday, and called those lampooning the Cavaliers “idiots.” But he recognizes the reality of a maddening March, having coached as a heavy favorite, and more recently, as an underdog.
“This tournament just breaks your heart,” Boeheim said. “The better you are, the more it breaks your heart.”
The Spartans are taking it all to heart. Assistant coach Dane Fife estimated he got 3-4 hours of sleep Friday night, poring over Syracuse tape. Of course the Spartans want to run before the Orange can get set, and to wear them out. Syracuse only plays six or seven guys, and three average 38 minutes.
That’s staggering stamina, helped by a defense that can be both stationary and stifling.
“If we’re playing the zone the correct way, we’re moving, active, talking,” Battle said. “We definitely frustrate a lot of teams because we’re so long and athletic, with shot blockers down low. And when you finally get that open shot, you start second-guessing it because you haven’t got an open shot the whole game.”
Shots are harder to find this time of year, and in the brackets, big shots are vulnerable and long shots are dangerous to overlook. You have to be ready for anything now, something the Spartans inherently know, and must patiently prove.
Michigan State vs. Syracuse
Tip-off: 2:40 p.m. Sunday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
TV/radio: CBS/760 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan State 30-4; No. 11 seed Syracuse 22-13
Next up: Winner advances to Sweet 16 in Omaha, Neb.