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For Syracuse, it won’t get much harder than Michigan State

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It’s hard to root for the Spartans, with their alleged handling of past sexual assaults and the shadow of Larry Nassar hanging over the school’s athletic department, but their basketball team’s as strong of a bet as anyone to win the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round: Bucknell Bison vs Michigan State Spartans Rick Osentoski -USA TODAY Sports

Only two teams ranked in the top-12 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive rankings this season, Michigan State and Duke. Those are the two skyscrapers Syracuse must surmount to simply reach the Elite Eight. If the Orange got an easy path in 2016, this just about makes up for it.

Syracuse defeated Arizona State and TCU to reach the round of 32, a monumental achievement considering SU’s circumstances, often inexistent offense and the fact that both of those opponents consistently posted over 80 points per game.

The Orange has now arrived on a completely different planet, set to matchup with the Spartan’s Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges, both widely considered top-10 prospects in the 2018 NBA Draft.

The Sun Devils and Horned Frogs skidded into the NCAA Tournament after playing sensational in the earlier portions of their schedules, while Michigan State won 11 straight games entering the Big Ten Tournament.

“Didn’t like him too much,” Jim Boeheim said when asked about Jackson’s father (a generality applied to everything Hoyas). Jackson Sr. played for Georgetown from 1985-89.

“Really good player, his son’s a better player.”

Indeed the 6’11” Jackson Jr.’s standing reach is just 11 inches short of the rim, which allowed him to finish inside consistently this season. That combined with a 39.6 percent three-point stroke on nearly 100 attempts helped him achieve a 60 percent effective field goal percentage. He blocks shots, over three per game, with both hands and switches onto guards with poise on defense.

The saving grace for Syracuse is that he only outweighs Paschal Chukwu by 12 pounds. The Orange will worry about him spotting up on the wing more than they will about his ability to score inside. In MSU’s previous two losses, both facing Michigan, he scored double figures and knocked down threes but his propensity to lose individual rebounding battles flashed.

That’ll be an important area for Syracuse to exploit, as it ranked 30th in total boards through the season and won the boards in both tournament wins to this point. Overall, despite Jackson’s inconsistency there, the Spartans ranked seventh.

Michigan State’s production comes in depth. Miles Bridges, another NBA prospect, grabs seven rebounds per game alongside Nick Ward. Eight players average over 14 minutes per game, and four of them shoot over 37 percent from three on over three attempts per game.

Boeheim called them one of the few great teams in college basketball who don’t strictly rely on their three best players to produce for upward of 38 minutes.

“Good defense ... take time ... make them work,” he said, listing off the things they’ll need to do to compete. “You can’t focus on one (player) … you have to play the whole team.”

Bridges, ranked lower on draft boards since he’s 6’6”, tightens up many of the elements Jackson misses. He drives to the rim often, creates and makes tough shots inside with both hands and often beats excellent rim protection. His spot-up shooting isn’t on Jackson’s level, but he crashes the boards hard and dishes out assists from the three-four spots.

His skillset wavers between a typical three and four, but the energy level he brings in his 30+ minutes never wavers. Per 40, he scores over 20 points per game. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer likened him to Derrick Coleman, who will be watching the game once again in Detroit with modest enthusiasm (see his soft clap for Syracuse’s win over TCU).

Another factor, the two teams will meet just over an hour from Michigan State’s campus at Detroit’s Little Caesar’s Arena. A mostly-empty stadium Friday will likely be flooded with green Sunday afternoon, creating a pseudo-home game.

Syracuse has held two teams under 60 who had never reached that low level previously, MSU averaged 81 this year, and held opponents to 65. SU enters averaging 67, with a 63.9 defensive average PPG. Those numbers figure to balance out. An eight point spread seems to point toward a tight contest as well, likely due to SU’s pace control and interior defense lately.

While the Orange has won strictly on defense going all the way back to the Clemson game, Marek Dolezaj is beginning to vanquish the team’s reputation as a three-man offense. While Jackson will likely ignore Chukwu’s screen attempts, it’s going to be harder to ignore Dolezaj after he poured 17 points on TCU mostly-open on the wing. He even provided some rare offensive spacing that helped Oshae Brissett break free late.

“One of the only European players who can’t shoot I’ve seen,” Boeheim said, lamenting on watching Dolezaj tape before bringing him in. “Last night, maybe because he had to hurry it, on the three, he shot perfectly.”

Normally, he said, when Dolezaj ventures beyond 15 feet his form breaks down. He added that his athleticism makes up for his 170-pound frame, and that if he was 200 pounds he’d likely be one of the best players in the country. His side production’s become key as Tyus Battle fights efficiency woes and Frank Howard continues to deal with the after-effects of strep throat.

While MSU only forced under 20 fouls per game on opponents, that’s still enough to pose the possibility of foul scares for SU. Cuse won in spite of Dolezaj fouling out with over six minutes left in the TCU game. Strangely enough, Boeheim followed yesterday afternoon by deflecting that as a point of concern.

“Our defense keeps us out of foul trouble … usually,” he said.

That defense is the best hope they have against a deep roster stacked with elite talent, in many ways operating the opposite of how Cuse has. They’re going to push it, while Boeheim’s group will look to grind the game to a halt one more time.