DETROIT — With just more than seven minutes left in the Spartans’ loss to Syracuse Sunday, sophomore forward Miles Bridges sprinted down the right side of the court after a Syracuse turnover, caught a long pass from his point guard Cassius Winston and threw down a thunderous one-handed dunk to put his team up, 44-39.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim immediately called a timeout after the play, as it energized the Spartans and the MSU-favored crowd at Little Caesars Arena.
In a game where neither team could produce more than 25 points by halftime, a five-point lead felt much larger.
Bridges’ dunk seemed to give the Spartans the momentum and enough separation to pull away from the Orange. But Syracuse proceeded to outscore MSU 16-9 the rest of the way. So what went wrong for the Spartans down the stretch?
Here's how the Orange sent the Spartans packing early:
Syracuse controlled pace
The Spartans had averaged more than 80 points per game on the season and scored 82 points in their first round game against Bucknell, but could only put 53 points on the board against Boeheim’s defense. Essentially, the Orange dictated the style of play throughout the entire game, but were able to maintain that grind-it-out, slow-it-down pace in the clutch when it mattered most.
The Orange ran at least 15 seconds off the clock on their last seven offensive possessions. Four out of the seven offensive trips resulted in points. Conversely, the Spartans went scoreless on eight of their last 10 possessions in the half court.
When Syracuse Guard Tyus Battle knocked down the game-winning jump shot, 27 seconds had come off the shot clock. Boeheim’s strategy was to put the ball in Battle’s hands, run as much time off the clock as possible and either convert or get to the foul line, which the Orange did 15 more times than MSU.
When a team plays a zone defense for a full 40 minutes and is good at getting back on defense, the pace of the game will likely be dictated by them. Syracuse has played that style all season, the Spartans haven’t.
Too many threes, not enough penetration
Theoretically, one of the ways to beat a 2-3 zone is to shoot it well from beyond the arc. But the way in which those 3-point shots are produced determines how effective the approach will be.
MSU attempted a program-high 37 3-point attempts against Syracuse, and only connected on eight of them.
The Spartans did a good job of showing patience against the Orange’s long zone, swinging the ball across the perimeter until they got an open look for a three. A good number of the looks were, for the most part, uncontested, but seldom did the team penetrate the zone.
MSU missed its last nine jump shots against the Orange. Collapsing a set defense is the best way to get the most efficient shots, and the Spartans didn’t do enough of that on Sunday.
Sophomore guard Joshua Langford and his backcourt mate Winston too often settled for long-range shots instead of taking the ball to the rack. And reserve point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. didn’t have the opportunity to do so, as the speedy senior played a total of two minutes the entire contest.
Questionable substitution patterns
Graduate transfer forward Ben Carter played 23 minutes on Sunday, the most minutes out of all other frontcourt players. Going into Sunday, Carter had not accumulated more than a combined 10 minutes in the last 15 games he played in.
Forwards Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr. played 16 minutes and 15 minutes, respectively, against Syracuse, and mostly watched from the sidelines down the stretch. Head coach Tom Izzo opted to go with Carter and freshman center Xavier Tillman instead.
After the game, Izzo said he chose to go with Carter to play in the middle of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone late in the game over Jackson because of Carter’s ability to make passes out of the zone and to make the free-throw line jump shot that was often available in the center of the defense.
In theory, Izzo’s reasoning sounds logical. Carter showed a nice shooting touch at times during the season, and is arguably the best playmaker in the frontcourt.
But Carter had not played crunch time minutes pretty much all season, and was often hesitant to attack the middle of Syracuse’s zone. Ward and Jackson had been on the court for more big moments throughout the season and would have been more comfortable in the late-game situation on Sunday.
The Spartans also had 29 offensive rebounds and were crushing the Orange on the glass for the entire game. Having Ward and Jackson on the floor to give MSU a few more key second chance opportunities down the stretch would have helped a Spartan team that missed its last 13 shots.