Syracuse has been playing with just five healthy players for months. Matthew Moyer and Bourama Sidibe are available in spots. The offense is just three players deep most nights. The thought coming in was that this group, as good as they can be at times, couldn’t keep the energy up for three games in five days to get to the Sweet 16.
Syracuse is now 3-0 in this tournament, and the only team to win a game while scoring 60 or fewer. The other 16 teams to fail to top 60? An imperfect 0-16, including Michigan State’s own 55-53 loss today at the hands of SU.
The level of difficulty here just can’t be overstated, even by Orange fans.
For the final minutes of Sunday’s win, Frank Howard wasn’t even on the floor. He had fouled out and was backed up by Braedon Bayer, a former walk-on. Syracuse upped the difficulty on this potential upset by pairing two offensive threats (Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett) with a bunch of players with four fouls and basically a walk-on.
And somehow, they stopped a top-10 Michigan State team from hitting a field goal in the final seven minutes or so.
That may be the most impressive feat yet for the Orange, who’ve taken this season’s defensive focus to a whole new level over the last three games. Three straight foes came into their matchup with Syracuse averaging over 80 points per game. Arizona State, TCU and MSU were all among the top 20 offenses in the country on KenPom. Each seemed uniquely better situated to beat the famed 2-3 zone than the last. Michigan State shot under 27 percent from the floor (!!!).
None of them pulled it off. Even if they had, Syracuse would have imposed their will on the entire proceedings nonetheless.
Despite Battle, Brissett and Howard playing what would be a crippling amount of minutes for many players (all among the top six in the country), this team just keeps going.
We’ve seen these sorts of efforts from Syracuse before. But maybe not like this. The 2016 team was great on that end, allowing no more than 62 points in any game before the Final Four. Still, they had senior guards and didn’t face offensive powerhouses in Dayton, MTSU, Gonzaga or Virginia.
In 2013, the defense was probably better than this one. But again, it’s tough to call the competition more challenging (especially given Syracuse being a four-seed that year), and SU was definitely more experienced. The Orange held both Montana and Marquette to fewer than 40 points. Cal and Indiana to 60 and 50, respectively. Even in the Final Four loss to Michigan, SU allowed just 61 points.
This year, it all just feels different, though. The odds are firmly stacked against Syracuse and the level of competition seems to be as well. After Virginia’s historic upset to UMBC, there were #TAKES about defense-first basketball taking a back seat. “Doomed to fail” was tossed around (laughably) as well. Despite the Hoos’ failures, Syracuse is proving all of that unequivocally false. They’re winning their way: Ugly, unapologetic, like a boulder rolling downhill.
The fan base, the coach and the team are one at this point. It almost seems like our birthright to reshape this tournament to our own whims as a lower seed. This may all come to an end against Duke on Thursday. However, our impact on this tournament and future ones is now set in stone.
No matter what happens, this defense is something to behold. Let’s enjoy the hell out of it, for however long it lasts.