Many pegged Syracuse as a likely candidate to be relegated to playing in a First Four matchup, but the Orange slipped into the main draw of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed.
And now it’s time to throw out the seeding.
It’s rare that Jim Boeheim’s team is a double-digit seed, but Syracuse has been dangerous in two other such situations and could be again when the Orange (16-9) take on No. 6 San Diego State (23-4) on Friday at Hinkle Fieldhouse in a Midwest Region game in Indianapolis.
Syracuse made a Final Four run as a 10th seed in 2016 and advanced to the Sweet 16 as an 11th seed in 2018. Credit that famous 2-3 zone, which can be problematic for opponents not used to seeing it and having to prepare for it on short notice.
“They’ll be interesting,” said coach Brian Dutcher of 16th-ranked San Diego State. “We’ve seen very limited zone all year.”
The Aztecs, who won the Mountain West regular-season and conference tournament titles, are known more for their defense than their offense. So this could be a low-scoring, grind-it-out battle with both offense trying to find their rhythm.
“There’s no set they haven’t seen and there’s no rotation they haven’t made,” Dutcher said of Syracuse’s zone. “It’s going to be going against the team that’s mastered their trade. This is what they do at a high level.”
Syracuse helped itself late in the season with a three-game winning streak — North Carolina, Clemson and North Carolina State — before losing to Virginia at the buzzer in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.
Boeheim’s son, Buddy Boeheim, is averaging a team-best 17.1 points per game, showing an all-around game, able to drain the 3-pointer and score off the dribble. He poured in a career-high 31 against Virginia in the ACC tourney. Alan Griffin puts in 14.7 points per game, followed by Quincy Guerrier at 14.4 to go with a team-best 8.8 rebounds per game.
Syracuse was 13-1 at home this season but is just 3-8 away from the Carrier Dome.
San Diego State is led by Mountain West Player of the Year Matt Mitchell (15.4 points per game) and the hot-shooting Jordan Schakel (14.3 points per game). Schakel has hit 46.7 percent of his 3-point attempts (78 of 167) to rank third in the country.
The Aztecs excel on defense, ranking seventh nationally in field goal percentage defense (38.7) and eighth in scoring defense (60.6 points per game). They are 16th in turnover margin (plus-3.9 per game).
“They’re big, they’re very athletic, they shoot very well. They’re one of the tougher teams you can draw in the tournament,” Boeheim said.
“There are some teams that are big but don’t shoot very well, or don’t defend. They defend at a high level. They shoot it at a high level. … I don’t think you can get a harder matchup.”
San Diego State and Syracuse have met twice, both won by the Orange — in the 2007 NIT second round and in 2012 in an outdoor game on the deck of the USS Midway Museum aircraft carrier in San Diego, Calif.
The Aztecs shot 1 of 18 from beyond the arc and were 14 of 33 from the free throw line in that 2012 game.
“I remember the free throws curving, the wind was blowing so hard,” said Dutcher, who was then the team’s lead assistant to Steve Fisher. “So you can imagine what the 3-point shots were doing. That was something else. With the absence of wind, we might even make some 3s this time.”
–Field Level Media