For the second time in three years, the Syracuse Orange are advancing to the Sweet 16. After knocking off the third-seeded Michigan State Spartans in Detroit, a lot of people pointed out the similarities with the 2016 Orange who advanced as a 10 seed all the way to the Final Four.
Though it’s a lazy narrative to simply say that this year’s Orange squad is following the template of that group two years ago.
In 2016 Syracuse handled the Dayton Flyers 70-51 in the opener. Syracuse was led by Malachi Richardon’s 23 points in that game and they beat a team that had gone 4-4 down the stretch, so it wasn’t that much of an upset as a 10 seed beating a 7. Everyone expected the Orange to face the Spartans next, but they MSU was taken out by the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders. Mike Gbinije’s 21 points led the Orange to an easy 75-50 win advance past MTSU and into the Sweet Sixteen. We all remember how the narrative at the time was “Syracuse got lucky they didn’t have to face Michigan State”.
That Orange team held their opponents to 100 total points but the level of competition wasn’t even close to what this year’s team has faced in the last week. Over a five-day period, Syracuse defeated the following offenses: the 17th-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils, 19th-ranked TCU Horned Frogs and 29th-ranked Michigan State Spartans by holding them to a total of 161 points. Those teams shot 40%, 40% and 26% respectively. The Orange opponents’ three-point shooting is a combined 22 for 86 which is a robust 25.5%.
The Orange have won three NCAA Tournament games while scoring 60 points or fewer, which in 2018 makes zero sense. No matter how you feel about the 2-3 zone you have to look at the facts of the last week and realize that advancing to the Sweet 16 has been driven by defense. Syracuse is forcing opponents to launch 3s and has taken them out of their comfort zone. As John pointed out this defense is most like the 2013 Orange, but that team was more experienced and expected to at least reach the Sweet 16.
From an offensive perspective, Both the 2016 and 2013 teams lap this one in terms of production and having a singular (or two) scorers that can take over games. Tyus Battle averaged over 19 points per game this year, and can catch fire at times. And Oshae Brissett has also played a great tournament so far. But based on production, they’re not necessarily Michael Carter-Williams or Malachi Richardson. Syracuse ranks 139th in offensive efficiency on KenPom right now, versus 50th in 2016 and 26th in 2013. Those were quality shooting teams that played slow. This is a middling shooting team that plays even slower.
The biggest test yet for Syracuse comes when they face the Duke Blue Devils on Friday. Duke ranks third in the country in points per game, so this will be another major challenge for the Syracuse zone. Additionally, it’s an uphill battle for this offense as well. Like SU, Duke also has a top-10 defense this year, largely fueled by a zone. Points will be at a premium -- which may be exactly what the Orange want.
No matter what happens on Friday we should remember the 2018 version of the Orange for what they are and not what the teams that came before them were.