MTSU searching for first Sweet 16 appearance against Syracuse

JaQawn Raymond and Giddy Potts celebrate a win in game one of the 2016 NCAA tournament. MTSU upset Michigan with an unexpected 90-81 victory. (MTSU Sidelines/ Sarah Grace Taylor)

Photo by Sarah Grace Taylor // Managing Editor

Middle Tennessee has taken on this year’s NCAA Tournament title of “Cinderella” after pulling off the improbable upset of second-seed Michigan State 90-81 on Friday.

The Blue Raiders advance to the round of 32 for just the fifth time in program history, their first appearance since 1989.

MTSU has a date with Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse on Sunday for a chance to appear in the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.

“What I was really proud of was kind of how [the players] handled the win,” MTSU head coach Kermit Davis said. “I thought they handled it being humble and class and act like they’d been there. And that’s exactly the way we wanted it especially against… a class program like Michigan State.”

“But now our full attention is to Syracuse, got it started last night. But a different style. Very, very good team, very well-coached team.”

The Orange are a much different defensive team than Tom Izzo’s man-to-man Spartans are, as Syracuse runs nothing but an aggressive 2-3 zone.

“Jim’s team and the zone is what it is. His guards are so big and so athletic. And they do such a good job of recruiting the guards that fit how they’re going to defend,” Davis said.

“And they only give up like 30 percent from 3. And so they guard the 3-point line. And you can’t fall in love with that and start shooting bad 3s.”

The Blue Raiders were 11-for-19 (57.8%) from beyond the arc against the Spartans, but Syracuse, even though they play a 2-3 zone, has an opponent three-point percentage of 30.4% that ranks 10th in the nation.

MTSU is shooting 39.2% as a team from beyond the arc, ranking 15th in the nation, but Davis said they are going to have to find ways to attack the paint against a stingy, physical Syracuse defense.

“You’ve got to get paint touches against this zone and hopefully good ball movement. And different guys that can be able to penetrate the zone will help,” Davis said.

Syracuse, as a team, is much lengthier than Michigan State, which will pose a perimeter threat for MTSU’s shooters.

Syracuse’s starting five against Dayton had an average height of 6-foot-7, while Michigan State’s starting five average height was only 6-foot-6 against MTSU.

While that difference may not seem like that big of a difference, Syracuse’s length is much more evenly spread throughout their guards and big men.

Other than Syracuse’s shortest player on the court, 6-foot-4 Trever Cooney, who is taller than Michigan State’s shortest guard, the shortest player on the court for Syracuse is 6-foot-6 Malachi Richardson.

MTSU will have to penetrate the paint more frequently than they did against Michigan State to open up their shooters against the length of Syracuse.

Ball security will also be a focal point in Davis’ game plan for MTSU because Syracuse averages 8.1 steals per game, ranking 20th in the country.

The Blue Raiders will have to take care of the basketball and make wise shot selections against the lengthy Orange zone if they want to appear in their first Sweet 16 in program history.

Tip-off between MTSU and Syracuse is set for 5:10 p.m. CT on Sunday evening from the Scottrade Center in St. Louis in the second-to-last game in the round of 32.

Follow Caleb Luketic on Twitter for more MTSU basketball coverage.

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To contact Sports Editor Connor Grott, email or follow him on Twitter at @Connor_Grott.

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