DETROIT — The men’s basketball team did almost everything right in its two-point loss to No. 11 seed Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday.
The one thing the Spartans didn’t do right costs them a chance to play Duke in the Sweet 16.
The Spartans out-rebounded the Orange by 19, and had 29 offensive rebounds to Syracuse’s seven. The advantage in bench points, second chance points and assists all went to MSU. The team also had just two more turnovers than The Orange.
So how did the Spartans lose? It’s simple, it was because they couldn’t make shots. That reasoning may sound a bit arbitrary, but the statistics will back it up, and so did head coach Tom Izzo after the game.
“We got beat because we couldn’t make a shot. And I thought we had some good shots,” Izzo said. "It was really disappointing."
The team shot 17-of-66 from the floor on Sunday, and went 8-of-37 from behind the 3-point line. And like Izzo said, many of the attempts from beyond the arc were not contested.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim disagreed with Izzo's assessment.
“We wanted to get to their shooters, and we did a great job of that,” Boeheim said after the game. “Our defense has been good this whole tournament all the way. It’s obviously the key for us.”
Boeheim was at least partially right. The Orange have been stellar on defense all season, having allowed an opponent to shoot 50 percent or better just once.
Syracuse, the last team selected into the field, can thank its defense for its three tournament wins thus far. Arizona State scored 27 points fewer than its season average against the Orange in the First Four, and No. 6 seed TCU shot an abysmal 18 percent from 3-point territory against them.
Syracuse is known historically for playing a 2-3 zone defense under Boeheim, and they did so for all 40 minutes Sunday against MSU. Operating offense against a zone isn’t easy due to limited chances to drive the ball, and doing so against a Syracuse team which starts five players who are 6-foot-5 or taller, makes matters worse.
But despite that, the Spartans still had plenty of good looks against Syracuse’s zone, particularly perimeter players Joshua Langford, Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston and Matt McQuaid. All four of these players shot 37 percent or better from three this season, and Boeheim knew that.
“We didn’t want Langford and McQuaid to shoot the ball,” Boeheim said. “When you get on a guy from the beginning, when they do finally get a shot later, then they’re not ready.”
Langford and McQuaid both went 1-for-7 from three, and Bridges and Winston combined to go 6-of-23.
“I think we got some great looks, some shots that we usually knock down. The ball definitely wasn’t falling tonight,” said sophomore point guard Cassius Winston.
Bridges, who couldn't miss against Bucknell Friday, couldn't buy a basket against the Orange's zone. The star forward connected on just four of his 18 field goal attempts.
“We got the shots that we wanted. We just couldn’t get inside as much as we wanted to because the zone is so long, but we just missed shots,” said sophomore wing and potential lottery pick Miles Bridges.
The Spartans faced a 2-3 zone only one other time this season, back in the Champions Classic against Duke, in which they lost by seven points. In that game, however, the team shot 36 percent from outside and 51 percent overall. While they looked sloppy at times against the Blue Devils’ zone, they still put 81 points on the scoreboard.
MSU couldn’t stop the Blue Devils from scoring, missing shots wasn’t the issue. Against Syracuse, however, missing shots was really the only issue, and that was illustrated by the way the game ended.
The Spartans missed their last 13 shots. Syracuse guard Tyus Battle sized up Langford and drained a pull-up jump shot to give the Orange a three-point lead with 47 seconds left. The Spartans responded with a handful of desperation 3-point misses.
And that was the end to their controversy-filled season.