Surprising Syracuse takes on ACC rival Duke
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Syracuse has surprisingly reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, relying on its zone defense to get the job done.
The opponent in the Midwest Regional semifinal on Friday night is Duke, which scrapped its man-to-man defense pretty much entirely more than a month ago and went to a zone defense.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski picked up a large portion of the pointers on the 2-3 zone set-up from Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim when they spent more than a decade together on the staff of the U.S. national team.
"We've gotten better in the zone," Krzyzewski said this week. "We've played really good defense. But it's because we're playing as one. ... In our zone, we communicate better and if you communicate better, you have a better chance of playing as one."
The teams meet in the second semifinal at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., following the Clemson-Kansas game.
Second-seeded Duke and 11th-seeded Syracuse -- both members of the Atlantic Coast Conference -- will clash for the second time this season. The Blue Devils won the first matchup 60-44 on Feb. 24 at home.
"You have to be careful not to point out too many things that happened a month ago," Krzyzewski said. "They've changed and we've changed. They're better and so are we."
That February meeting resulted in the lowest scoring output of the season for Syracuse.
"They were playing really up on us, making it hard for us to get open 3-point looks," Syracuse guard Tyus Battle said. "They made it tough on us."
Duke had a miserable outing shooting from the perimeter that night in Cameron Indoor Stadium, making 2 of 18 shots from 3-point range.
Since then, Syracuse has gone 5-2 and Duke is 4-2. Both teams exited the ACC Tournament earlier this month with losses to North Carolina.
Duke blew out NCAA Tournament opponents Iona and Rhode Island last week in Pittsburgh. Syracuse has had three games, beginning with a First Four escape against Arizona State and then narrow victories in Detroit against sixth-seeded Texas Christian and third-seeded Michigan State.
The rematch with Syracuse has several components, so Duke guard Grayson Allen said the Blue Devils won't take anything for granted.
"It helps and it hurts," Allen said of playing the Orange previously this season. "It helps because we know their personnel. But they're a different team. They're a better team. Their guys are playing with more confidence."
Duke's heralded group of freshmen includes ACC Player of Year Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter Jr., Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval. Bagley returned from a four-game absence with a knee sprain to score 19 points vs. Syracuse in his only outing off the bench this season.
Syracuse has received a huge postseason boost from freshman forward Oshae Brissett, who has 13 double-doubles this season.
"Oshae has been really good in this tournament," Boeheim said. "He's just a freshman, but he doesn't play like a freshman. He makes big plays."
He scored 23 points against Arizona State and 15 in each of the next two games against TCU and Michigan State.
That has helped pick up the slack from Battle (19.6 points per game) and guard Frank Howard (14.6). Battle has averaged 13 points in the tournament and Howard checks in at 10.7 in the three NCAA games.
"Our guards have not played well on offense and we need them moving forward," Boeheim said. "We've got to get them to play better offensively."
The Orange defeated Duke in their only meeting in 2015-16 and again in their only matchup in 2016-17.
The teams' last NCAA Tournament meeting came 20 years ago with Duke winning in the Sweet 16 in St. Petersburg. Fla. That was well before Syracuse joined the ACC. Duke also won a 1966 regional final against Syracuse, advancing to the Final Four.
Updated March 21, 2018