The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team will face the San Diego State Aztecs in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It will mark the third time these programs have met, yet the first time Jim Boeheim will face Aztecs head coach Brian Dutcher.
The Orange swept the other two meetings, the first an NIT game in the Carrier Dome in 2007 and the second in “the Battle of the Midway,” a game played on the USS Midway to honor Veterans Day back in 2012.
While Dutcher didn’t take over for Steve Fisher until 2017, he had been on staff for all 18-years of Fisher’s tenure at SDSU (preceded by nine years under Fisher at Michigan). He was on staff for both Syracuse matchups and remembers the latter matchup well, recalling the wind and difficulty shooting outdoors, exposed to the weather.
“I’m glad we’re not playing them on the aircraft carrier,” Dutcher said in jest on Sunday. “With the absence of wind we might even make some threes this time.”
San Diego State was already in Indianapolis on Sunday. The Aztecs have won 14 straight games and boast one of the best defenses in the country, currently No. 11 in Ken Pom. They get it done on the other end of the floor as well, boasting the No. 44 overall offense in Ken Pom adjusted efficiency. They don’t take a ton of 3s, but shoot it well from outside at 37.5%.
While Syracuse’s 2-3 zone hasn’t been as good as it traditionally is, the Aztecs will face a new defensive challenge for the first time this season.
“We’ve seen very limited zone all year. I think Air Force tried to zone us. They played a matchup and some switching,” Dutcher divulged. “We haven’t played against a 2-3 zone the entire season. So we’re going to see one for 40 minutes. So I’m glad we have the time to prepare for it.”
Dutcher said he thinks Jim Boeheim is a master coach and knows he’ll have his Syracuse team ready to play. Without doing any scouting before Sunday, Dutcher knew a bit about SU’s season.
Dutcher knew Syracuse’s records at home, away and on neutrals. He mentioned how Buddy Boeheim leads Syracuse in scoring and made the All-ACC Tournament First Team along with his 30 point game. He watched Syracuse beat North Carolina and laughed, suggesting Boeheim was downplaying his team. Said Dutcher, “If I was playing golf with him, he’d probably be sandbagging me right now.”
Two of San Diego State’s seniors also know Syracuse well, at least historically. Jordan Schakel, a 6-foot-6 guard who averages 14.3 points per game on 46.7% shooting from outside, cited his familiarity with Carmelo Anthony and the 2-3 zone.
“I used to watch Syracuse a lot growing up. They would always be on CBS or you know those channels everybody gets. Playing in that dome with all the Orange fans,” Schakel said. “Straight special.”
Schakel was asked about Syracuse’s 2-3 zone and said they recruit for it.
“I know they’ve seen shooters in the past. It’s nothing new for them. They know what to take away. We just gotta find the holes in their zone,” He said.
Matt Mitchell leads San Diego State in scoring at 15.4 points per game. He was named Mountain West Player of the Year. Growing up, he fancied himself as Carmelo Anthony. He wore an orange headband and admits Syracuse was his favorite school when he was growing up.
He insists the key against the 2-3 zone is to get the ball into the middle, go inside out and space the floor with shooters.
“I spent a lot of time, my middle school years and especially my high school years, just liking Syracuse and liking Jim Boeheim. Everything that he did, offensively, defensively with his players. I definitely could draw up that 2-3 zone pretty well. So hopefully when it comes to the game I can dice it up.”