Tom Izzo is one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball. He has averaged over 24 wins per season since taking over the reigns at Michigan State in 1995, he has taken the Spartans to the NCAA Tournament 13 consecutive years, and he’s made the Final Four in six of the past 12 seasons. But Izzo did not do his homework on Syracuse. Perhaps the Spartans have been traveling too much (a trip to Cameron Indoor and a trip to the Maui Invitational) because they did not look prepared to play the Orange. Syracuse played to their strengths and Michigan State did little to slow them down as the Orange pick up a signature victory over the 7th ranked Spartans, 72-58.
The one huge, glaring weakness of this Syracuse team is its inability to hit jumpers. A few games could be considered a funk but it has now been nine games and little has changed. They can’t hit three-pointers and they can’t even hit the midrange shots. The obvious strategy is to play off of the wing players and dare them to shoot. But Michigan State didn’t employ this strategy. They played up on their man and allowed the Orange to drive right by them and get to the rim for some easy baskets. Just take a look at the graph below on how Syracuse scored their points.
They scored 62 of their 72 points on layups or free throws. Their first points not in the paint came with under 5 minutes remaining in the first half when Scoop Jardine attempted to throw an alley-oop that just happened to go in.
Aside from free throws and layups they hit 5 of 31 shots, including 2 of 11 from three-point range. And yet Michigan State never really made the adjustment to pack the paint and force the outside shots. It’s truly baffling.
The one consistent force for Syracuse has been Rick Jackson. When teams are scouting the Orange, this is where they should start. He has scored in double figures in every single game and missed a double-double in just two. He’s devastating in the post one-on-one. The answer, of course, is to double-team him. It’s especially easy to do if the opponent is packing the paint and giving the outside shots. But did the Spartans do that? Not nearly enough. But they did double Baye Moussa Keita leaving Jackson wide open for a crucial dunk late in the second half. Jackson had his best game of the season, finishing with 17 points and 16 rebounds.
Turnovers have been a problem all season for the Spartans. They’ve averaged nearly 18 per game. They just about hit that mark last night, turning it over 17 times resulting in 18 points for the Orange. Some of this was due to the 2-3 zone but at lest five of those turnovers were just poor passes. Three simply missed the mark and sailed out of bounds.
But the Orange’s defense does deserve a lot of credit. It was the best defensive effort all season. They forced the Spartan guards to push out further and further making them less of a threat. They were able to get a few passes over the top of the zone but Syracuse began clamping down on that. Syracuse held them to under 40% shooting and controlled the pace of this game. They allowed very few transition buckets while getting many of their own by forcing turnovers and pushing the pace when they wanted to.
The Orange won by playing to their strengths. They played suffocating defense and used their athleticism and strength to get to the rim. But it’s only a matter of time before teams key in on their one-dimensional offense. This might be a harsh assessment coming off a decided victory over a top-10 team but the sky is the limit for this squad if they can just knock down those jumpers at an average rate. The Orange head back to Syracuse where they play four straight home games against the usual cupcakes before starting their Big East slate. That’s four games and nearly a month for this team to improve their shooting before it could become a bigger issue.
Robbie Gillies is a senior columnist at The Juice Online. He is also an editor at Real Clear Sports. See more at http://www.realclearsports.com/