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  • With help from contributors who barely saw the floor all year and a suffocating defense that's not easy on the eyes, Syracuse snuck into the Sweet 16 as a different breed of tournament underdog. Write off the Orange at your own risk.
By Chris Johnson
March 23, 2018

OMAHA, Neb. — When Braedon Bayer arrived at Syracuse, he was hopeful that he could walk on to an ACC heavyweight led by a Hall of Fame coach. After drawing zero Division I scholarship offers out of Trinity-Pawling School, a prep institution about 20 minutes southeast of his hometown, Lagrangeville, N.Y., he averaged 10.7 points per game over one full season for Grinnell College, the D-III program in Iowa best known for a gimmicky style of basketball that involves pushing the tempo to the extreme, encourages launching three-point shots with abandon and occasionally produces ridiculous individual scoring outbursts.

Drawn to Syracuse by the friendship he had developed with former Orange forward and eventual NBA first-round draft pick Tyler Lydon through prominent, New York state-based grassroots program City Rocks, Bayer transferred in 2015. “I just couldn’t deal with Iowa,” he said. “It was a different culture out there.” Bayer never put up anything close to 138 points in a single game at Grinnell, and after joining Syracuse’s team in 2016 and redshirting, he was given a scholarship following South Florida graduate transfer Geno Thorpe’s departure for personal reasons in December of last year.

Bayer had logged only 11 minutes over eight games this season entering Syracuse’s round of 32 matchup with No. 3 seed and chic Final Four pick Michigan State in Detroit on Sunday, including none in the Orange’s two previous NCAA tournament wins over Arizona State and TCU. But late in the second half, after junior guard Frank Howard fouled out by drawing his second whistle in a seven-second span on a questionable call while pressuring the receiver of an inbounds pass at half-court, Jim Boeheim turned to Bayer. “All right, you’re going in,” he told him.

Over the next six-plus minutes, Bayer would man a spot next to a projected first-round pick (sophomore guard Tyus Battle) in the front line of Syracuse’s vaunted 2–3 zone defense; force a jump ball near the basket on a former five-star recruit (wing Joshua Langford) that went the Orange’s way with nine seconds left; and, inside the final two minutes, scurry into the lane while tracking back on a fast break before rising up to snuff out a layup attempt from Spartans star Miles Bridges. “Didn’t even think, like, ‘Oh, this is a lottery pick,’ or nothing like that,” Bayer said of the swat. “Just tried to make a play and not let him score.”

Bayer did what was asked of him in a pivotal stretch of a pivotal game. “He was terrific,” assistant coach Gerry McNamara said. With Bayer flying around and making big plays in crunch time, Syracuse pulled off maybe the most stunning non-UMBC upset of the NCAA tournament to date. But the fact Bayer was even in the game to begin with is instructive. Why, with the Orange’s season on the line against a preseason national championship contender loaded with pro talent, was a former walk-on on the court? This is the simple answer: Syracuse has about as much depth as Bayer does 2018 draft stock.

Thinned by departures and injuries, the Orange are leaning heavily on their five starters. Since Feb. 1, Howard, Battle, freshman forward Oshae Brissett and freshman forward Marek Dolezaj are all averaging at least 34 minutes per game. Junior center Paschal Chukwu is at 27.3 minutes per game over that span. One of Syracuse’s only reserves, freshman big man Bourama Sidibe, is set to undergo surgery in the offseason to address a nagging knee issue. “I just gotta play through it,” Sidibe said.

Battle has played all 120 minutes of three games in the NCAAs, Brissett has logged 117 and Howard had not hit the bench prior to fouling out and giving way to Bayer against Michigan State. All three of them rank among the top 10 in Division I in percentage of available minutes played, with Battle checking in first at 96.1%.

Syracuse’s thin roster did not prevent it from getting back to the Sweet 16 following a one-year hiatus spent as a No. 1 seed in the NIT. The No. 11 seed Orange showed up here as one of only two double-digit seeds to reach this year’s regional semifinals (along with No. 11 Loyola Chicago), as well as heavy underdogs against Duke: the statistics website FiveThirtyEight gives them only a 15% shot to advance to the Elite Eight. Syracuse also might be the most reviled team left in the field, with the possible exception of the No. 2 seed it will take on here Friday night.

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For starters, it’s debatable whether Syracuse even deserved a spot in the NCAAs. It lacked quality wins, posted a sub-.500 record in the ACC and entered the conference tournament having dropped four of six before being blown out by North Carolina in the second round. The selection committee saw fit to hand the Orange the final at-large bid anyway, snubbing the Notre Dame team that beat them at the Carrier Dome in early January. Syracuse has not “justified” its bid with a trio of victories that came after the bracket was unveiled, but it has taken full advantage of an opportunity it arguably didn’t deserve. “Just to go out there and win a few games,” sophomore forward Matthew Moyer said, “It’s a great feeling.”

There’s no getting around it: The Orange can be a pretty terrible watch. They win by drawing opponents into slow, low-scoring slogs. Only once since 2010 have they ranked higher than 200th in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo, and they rank 345th out of 351 teams this season. Syracuse has failed to exceed 60 points in each of its three tourney wins. Only one other tourney team has recorded a single victory while failing to hit that number. (Kansas State beat UMBC 50–43 in the second round.) In their lone matchup with Duke this season, on Feb. 24 in Durham, the Orange were held to 44 points. They rank 323rd nationally in three-point percentage, 309th in two-point percentage and 244th in points scored per 100 possessions. 

Syracuse might have a fuller bandwagon were it not for the curmudgeonly Hall of Famer at the tail end of his 42nd year coaching the program—the one who has made a habit of lashing out at media members, railed against the idea of college athlete compensation and planned on stepping down after this season, only to later sign a contract extension. Boeheim is also synonymous with a 2–3 zone defense that’s anathema to some observers and occupies the opposite pole of the aesthetic spectrum as the surgical offense played by the Golden State Warriors. “Everybody says defense wins games,” Boeheim said. “But then when they see it, they don’t like it.”

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The effectiveness of the 2–3 zone—Syracuse has yielded an average of .89 points per possession in the tourney, compared to the 1.02 it gave up during ACC play—is probably the biggest reason the Orange are here, and they’ll need to deploy it as effectively as they have all season to beat the Blue Devils on Friday. As a fellow ACC member that faced Syracuse just last month, Duke has a better sense for how to attack the scheme’s weak spots than did the Orange’s three previous opponents. The Blue Devils also might have more sheer talent than any other squad still alive, which helps to explain why, as of Thursday, they were the Vegas favorite to cut down the nets, according to Bovada.

Syracuse will try to negate that advantage by dragging the game into the 50s or lower. It will count on the 2–3 flummoxing the Blue Devils into fruitless chucking from the perimeter. And in the event of a few unfavorable foul calls, Boeheim may look down the bench and point to Bayer. Around this time two years ago, he was alone in a single dorm away from the main part of campus, watching on a “little tiny TV” as the No. 10 seed Orange roared back in the second half to slay No. 1 seed Virginia and reach the Final Four. “I was obviously jealous watching that,” he said. Soon, Bayer could make his own trip to the national semifinals, as part of a team most of the college basketball-watching public would rather not see there.

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