Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis, whose team lost by 25 points to Syracuse on Sunday, noted that “you can’t overlook how good their players are.”
Montana State coach Brian Fish said the Syracuse team that thumped his Bobcats by 22 in December has made a “tremendous amount of improvement.”
ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg called Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim a “fantastic game coach.”
Doesn’t sound like a 10 seed with 13 losses following mid- and late-season swoons that left many bracket gurus attaching the Orange to the NCAA tournament bubble. Take a closer look at Gonzaga’s opponent on Friday in the Sweet 16:
▪ Battle-tested senior guards in Michael Gbinije, a 6-foot-7 point guard who has scored in double figures in every game this season and leads the ACC in steals (1.97 per game), and Trevor Cooney, who has played in 138 career games and logged nearly 4,000 minutes.
“Moving Gbinije to the point was brilliant. He’s been phenomenal,” Greenberg said. “Cooney, you talk to Syracuse fans and they lose their mind over the guy, but he’s a really good player. They steady the ship.”
▪ Freshman wing Malachi Richardson has emerged as the second-leading scorer at 13.1 points per game. He’s made 64 field goals, 72 3-pointers and 102 free throws.
▪ Tyler Roberson, a 6-8 junior forward, is a relentless rebounder who averages close to a double-double.
“In December, they were having hit-or-miss games,” Fish said. “They look completely different from when we played them. They’re way more aggressive offensively.”
▪ Versatile freshman forward Tyler Lydon, who had 14 points and seven boards in each of Syracuse’s two NCAA tournament wins, is “as good a pick-and-pop ‘4’ as we went against,” Davis said. “He’s going to remind (GU fans) of (Kyle) Wiltjer.”
▪ DaJuan Coleman, a 6-9, 270-pound senior, is a physical presence in the middle of Syracuse’s famed zone defense. Four of five starters log heavy minutes with Lydon coming off the bench to average just over 30 minutes.
▪ Reserve guard Franklin Howard sees roughly 10 minutes per game.
“They only have like six guys, but they’re really, really good guys,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Out of their 2-3 zone, they can just explode in transition, run and get to the rim. Gbinije has played himself into an NBA career and Cooney is another one of those great shooters it seems like they always have.”
Syracuse opened the season 6-0, punctuated by a 74-67 win over Texas A&M in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship that propelled the Orange to No. 14 in the AP poll. Boeheim was benched for nine games under NCAA sanctions and the team managed just a 4-5 mark in that stretch, including an 0-3 ACC start.
The Orange regained their footing, winning at Duke and thumping Notre Dame, but a 1-5 finish, including a first-round ACC tournament loss to Pittsburgh, left smudges on their at-large resume.
“They had some money in the bank with wins over A&M and Connecticut,” Greenberg said. “I’m not surprised they’ve been able to turn it around. They have good guard play, experience, and their shot selection improved when Jim came back.
“He has such a great feel for his team, for situations. It’s fun to watch honestly.”
Probably not quite as much fun to play against. Montana State made just seven first-half field goals and scored 17 points. The Bobcats had 43 second-half points, but they weren’t able to contain Syracuse’s offense in an 82-60 loss.
“Their guards pin their ears back and attack the rim,” Fish said. “Lydon does it all, kind of a Tom Chambers-type that can play everywhere. Richardson and Roberson are athletic guys that fit well with their system.”
Middle Tennessee, which stunned second-seeded Michigan State 90-81 in the first round, trailed the Orange by 1 early in the second half. Less than 10 minutes later, the Blue Raiders were down 20 and eventually fell 75-50.
“Their guards shot the lights out against us, deep 3s,” said Davis, the former Idaho Vandals coach. “The freshman (Lydon) may be the most talented of all of them. In time he’s going to be a first-round pick. Richardson is just so talented. Roberson is as good of an offensive rebounder as we played. The zone (defense) is a real bear.
“It’ll be a heck of a game. Both teams are playing great.”