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This year's run could end up being one for the ages for Syracuse, the final team to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Starting in the First Four as one of the most debated bubble teams in the field, the No. 11-seeded Orange beat Arizona State, TCU and now Michigan State, 55-53, to set up an All-ACC Sweet 16 battle with Duke in the Midwest Regional semifinal.
The high-powered Spartans, the region's No. 3 seed, were slowed to Syracuse's pace and suffocated by the zone defense, shooting 25.8 percent from the field and going through long stretches without a field goal. All Syracuse had to go was hang around long enough to be close late in the game, and the Orange got it done, grabbing the lead in the final five minutes, hitting free throws and getting stops to hold off Michigan State.
Jim Boeheim had not met fellow Hall of Famer Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament since going head-to-head in a classic Sweet 16 matchup in 2000. In that game, the Spartans battled back from an eleven-point second half deficit to win en route to a national championship. The fact that two coaches with so much NCAA Tournament experience don't run into each other more frequently is odd, and added to the intrigue of Sunday afternoon's matchup.
Boeheim's Syracuse teams are difficult to prepare for because of the commitment to an aggressive brand of zone defense, but the consistency of Boehiem's entire belief system is truly the rock of the Orange's postseason success. It extends beyond the defense, and into his decisions with rotations and late-game scenarios. When up three late in the game, Syracuse will always foul. There's no feel or decisions made on the fly. At Syracuse, the plan is in place and will not be adjusted.
"We're always going to foul in those situations and it's always worked for us," Boeheim said after the game. "I've seen too many guys when the guy makes a 3 and it goes into overtime."
That stubbornness allows for confidence in times of high stress, like the NCAA Tournament. It's powered many deep Syracuse runs before, and now the Orange will try to add to the 2016 similarities with another Final Four run. That year Syracuse had to beat Virginia to win the region, this year it'll take a win against another ACC rival, Duke.
Four more things to know/note about Syracuse's big upset of the Spartans:
1. Syracuse is the fourth team to make it from the First Four to the Sweet 16
Since the expansion to 68 teams and the launch of the First Four in 2011, only four teams (including the Orange) have made it all the way to the Sweet 16. Making things even better for Syracuse fans has to be not only the string of wins but doing so in the face of a selection committee that had them as the very last team in the field of 68.
Even moments of Sunday's win against Michigan State seemed like the cards were set for a regression from this high level of competition, like the team that lost 13 times would soon fall behind a Michigan State team that spent most of this year making a good case as a national title contender. Syracuse battled through its own case of poor shooting from the field and foul trouble, but overcame it all to become the second No. 11 seed to make the Sweet 16 this year.
2. The 2018 NCAA Tournament just lost one of its top title contenders
Michigan State was the fourth-most popular national championship pick, finishing on top in 8.7 percent of the entires on CBS Sports Bracket Games. A whopping 87.9 percent of entires had the Spartans advancing to the Sweet 16, followed by a near 50-50 split (48.3 percent, 45.8 percent) with Duke on advancing to the Midwest Regional final.
But beyond the bracket stats is also the loss of a 30-win team that had every look of a squad that could go on a run and win it all in the NCAA Tournament. When Miles Bridges buried the game-winner against Purdue you could feel like this was a Spartans team that could overcome almost anything. Clearly not the case, as made evident by the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament.
3. Michigan State's long, exhausting season has concluded
It wasn't just the loss of a title contender, but also the conclusion of the season for one of college basketball's most talked-about teams. Michigan State tied to the FBI investigation and a review of how assault allegations have been handled within the Spartans' entire athletic department. All the while Izzo has two NBA-ready stars playing together and a team that was capable of winning a national championship.
Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson have likely played their final game for Michigan State. There was one final press conference after the loss, but Izzo will now fade from the headlines for a few weeks while the rest of the college basketball world focuses on the rest of the tournament. Michigan State always felt like one of many super-talented, but flawed, teams in tournament past, seemingly destined for an first weekend exit or Final Four run.
4. Syracuse vs. Duke scouting report favors the Blue Devils
The early Las Vegas line has Duke listed as a 10.5-point favorite against Syracuse. The two teams played once in the regular season, in Durham, and the Blue Devils won 60-44. Recent results seem to suggest it could be close, with Mike Krzyzewski only holding a 5-4 advantage all-time against Boeheim and Syracuse winning of two of the last three meetings. If Duke decides to stick to its own zone defense it'll be zone vs. zone, ACC style, when these two teams play on Friday night.