After dispatching two opponents with relative ease, No. 5 Syracuse faces its first real test of the young season against No. 12 Mississippi State in the semifinals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.
In his 28 years at Syracuse, coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense has been one of the main constants with his teams. The Orange won the 2003 national championship with it, and the alignment still continues to baffle opponents. Just ask Northern Colorado and Princeton.
Syracuse (2-0) easily got past the Bears, 104-54 in last Thursday’s first round, and stifled the Tigers 56-45 in the second round on Friday night.
After racing to a nine-point lead against Syracuse’s man defense, the Tigers struggled to get their motion offense to work after the Orange switched to the zone.
Princeton finished the game 15-for-38, shooting just 30 percent in the second half.
Syracuse scored 23 points off Princeton’s 15 turnovers, while the Tigers managed just eight points off the Orange’s dozen giveaways.
“We’re happy. Pulling away from a team like Princeton was good,” said Syracuse point guard Gerry McNamara, who has 195 career 3-pointers and needs two more to tie Lawrence Moten for second place on Syracuse’s all-time list. “But we could have played a lot better. Right now, we’re just trying to improve.”
Mississippi State (2-0) advanced to the semis with wins over Fairfield (53-49) and Birmingham-Southern (55-48). The Bulldogs are excited about playing at Madison Square Garden against an established team like Syracuse.
“It’s an opportunity early in the season to be in one of the best venues in the country and the media capital of the world,” Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said. “At the same time you’re doing it against one of the best programs in the country. Anytime you have an opportunity to be on this stage this time of the year, with a national audience, no question it can only help your program.”
Stansbury isn’t quite as excited about facing Syracuse’s zone.
“I don’t know if anybody has ever totally figured out their zone,” Stansbury said. “There’s no secrets against it, eventually you’ve got to make some perimeter shots. And to this point we haven’t done that very well.”
All-American forward Lawrence Roberts missed the opening-round win over Fairfield on Thursday as he served a one-game suspension from the NCAA over expenses paid to attend a tryout before the NBA draft. The 6-foot-10 senior didn’t play against Birmingham-Southern because of a broken nose suffered last week in practice.
His availability is still up in the air for Thursday, not a promising situation for a team that barely managed to get past two unranked foes to get to reach the semifinals.
“Right now we don’t know,” Stansbury. “It’s going to be a gametime decision, well see if he’s able to go or not.”