NCAA Tournament 2018: Michigan State’s title hopes go clang against Syracuse’s zone defense

Michigan State Spartans-Syracuse Orange-NCAA Tournament

DETROIT — Cassius Winston had visions of adding his name to the list of March Madness buzzer beaters this first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Those visions and the Michigan State sophomore point guard’s final desperation heave from half court went left and bounced off the rim at Little Caesars Arena in a 55-53 loss to Syracuse on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the 14th straight shot the Spartans took and missed, which sums up why they won’t be playing in the Sweet 16 for the third straight year.

“I think we got all the shots that we wanted but if you would tell me that we wouldn’t hit one of them, I wouldn’t believe it,” said Winston. “We played with confidence. We shot it with confidence. We felt that at least one was going to go in.”

It never did. The shots came from all over; outside the 3-point arc, inside it, off offensive rebounds and tip-outs. They just wouldn’t fall.

Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense that utilizes big players with long arms frustrates a lot of teams, but this wasn’t so much about what the Orange did as it was what the Spartans failed to do.

Make open shots.

Michigan State had 66 field-goal attempts. It missed 49 of them. It took 37 3-point shots, but made only 8. Penetrate the zone, kick out passes to open shooters is the way to beat Syracuse. Those shooters have to make those shots.

Only four times all season had Michigan State made less than 40 percent of its shot attempts in a game, and never was it lower than 38 percent. It shot at least 50 percent 17 times.

The Spartans shot 25.8 percent from the field against Syracuse.


  • Josh Langford: 1-12 FGs, 1-7 3-point
  • Miles Bridges: 4-18, 3-12
  • Cassius Winston: 4-12, 3-11
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.: 0-4
  • Matt McQuaid: 1-7, 1-7
  • Xavier Tillman: 2-5

Forward Nick Ward made 4 of his 5 shots from inside the paint but Syracuse’s length and height inside made nearly every shot a contested one. The Spartans had just 1 basket on a fast-break opportunity. That was a slam dunk by Bridges off a pass from Winston with 7:30 remaining that gave Michigan State a 44-39 lead. It brought the crowd of 20,360 that provided Michigan State a home away from the Breslin Center to its feet. It forced Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to call a timeout.

“I was trying to get to the basket the whole game,” said Bridges, “and when I finally got there, I felt the whole energy in the arena go up. I thought we for sure had that game.”

The Spartans made just 1 field goal the rest of the game, a floater in the lane by Winston with 5:41 left.

“I definitely feel like I let my team down. I could’ve made some plays, got some rebounds,” Bridges said. “It was bad timing. We shot the ball great all year and for us to shoot this bad now, myself, it was bad. Now we don’t have no more season left.

“I think it was us not making shots. We were a little too stagnant on offense against the zone. We should’ve gotten it moving.”

Michigan State outrebounded Syracuse 51-30. The Spartans grabbed 29 offensive rebounds to just 7 for the Orange but all those extra opportunities amounted to just 21 points.

“We had 29 offensive rebounds?” asked Tillman.

Yes, you did.

“When I got offensive rebounds, I know I was looking to kick it out to our shooters a lot but I know on a couple of them I’ve got to go up just because I’m close to the rim and at least get fouled,” Tillman said. “I think when I got them close to the rim, I’ve just got to go up strong and finish.”

There were so many shots. So many misses.

“We said we didn’t want to make effort-related things and mistakes. And when you outrebound a team by 21 that’s average height is 6-[foot-]9, and you got just about every loose ball we could get,” said coach Tom Izzo, trying to bring some perspective to the loss. “We got beat because we couldn’t make a shot. And I thought we had some good shots. It was really disappointing.”

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