For the third straight season Michigan State will fail to advance past the first weekend of March Madness falling to 11-seeded Syracuse 55-53 in the Round of 32. Fans may choose to blame the officiating, the NCAA seeding or MSU’s week layoff from the Big Ten tourney, but the fact of the matter is that MSU only has itself to blame.
MSU’s offense struggled mightily against a stifling Syracuse zone defense, shooting an abysmal 25.8% from the field and an even worse 21.6% from beyond the arc. Adding insult to injury MSU missed the final 13 FGs they attempted at the end of the game.
Many of these struggles were self inflicted. The Spartan offense was stagnant for the vast majority of the game, failing to force the Syracuse zone to make even the slightest adjustments. It also didn’t help MSU that the majority of their shots came from behind the three-point line. Against a zone defense, taking that many outside shots will almost always play right into the defense’s hands. By not going inside the Spartans failed to capitalize on Syracuse’s dire foul situation which saw three of the Orange’s starting five with three or more fouls for most of the second half.
The last two MSU early exits can almost be chalked up to extraordinary circumstances. Middle Tennessee State’s victory over the Spartans in 2016 can be attributed to the Blue Raiders shooting the lights out and MSU’s loss to Kansas last year can be attributed to a lack of personnel to matchup with the Jayhawks. This time around it felt like the Spartans fell short and could’ve done more and part of that falls on the coaching staff.
Questionable decisions were made by MSU’s coaches in regard to playing key players. Tum Tum Nairn, a senior with years of post season basketball experience, played two minutes. Tum Tum’s speed and slashing could’ve forced the Syracuse zone to move and adjust, or at a minimum his leadership on the court could’ve at least calmed the Spartans down a bit. But that’s hypothetical, whereas the difference that Ward was making on the court was easily seen. Nick Ward, the only MSU player who looked like he knew how to attack the zone, played just 16 minutes. Ward went 4-5 from the field and was 100% from the free throw line in that limited time. Every time he got the ball the defense had to adjust and Syracuse didn’t have an answer for him.
Even with this loss there is reason for optimism; the Spartans are led by a Hall of Fame coach and will be loaded with talent again next year. While the Spartans will likely be without Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson next year, as they are projected NBA lottery picks, the majority of this year’s team should be back next year. For the first time in two years MSU will have a veteran team that should help them both in the regular season and March.
MSU will learn from this loss and improve. But while the future looks bright for the Spartans it may take some time for the team and their fans to get over the disappointing end to this season.
Stats courtesy of ESPN.com