A First Four matchup of 11-seeds in the Midwest Region between Arizona State and Syracuse gives us a major-conference battle a day before the real fun starts. The Sun Devils (20-11, 8-10 Pac-12) make their 15th tournament appearance — and the first since 2014 — while the Orange (20-13, 8-10 ACC) are back in the tournament for the 39th time after missing the cut last season.
These two teams meet for what will only be the third time in the history of this series. The Sun Devils won the inaugural matchup back in 1968, but the Orange the only other meeting — which just so happened to be during the 2009 NCAA Tournament. The winner will take on No. 6 seed TCU on Friday night in Detroit.
Despite losing in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament to Colorado, Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils boast an impressive résumé. Arizona State was the final undefeated team in college basketball, and their schedule features a number of impressive wins, especially in non-conference action. The Sun Devils claimed wins against Kansas and Xavier — two of the four No. 1 seeds in this year’s NCAA Tournament — as well as Kansas State during the regular-season.
Seniors Tra Holder and Shannon Evans II power the ASU offense, with Holder leading the Pac-12 in made free throws (159) and Evans with a conference-best 91 made three-pointers.
Jim Boeheim’s Orange arrive in Dayton looking to reverse their recent fortunes. Syracuse has lost five of its last eight games, with the three most recent losses all by at least 15 points. The bright side: the Orange have won at least one game in the tournament in each of its last seven trips to the Big Dance.
A question mark for this team, however, is tournament inexperience. Of Syracuse’s top seven players, five are freshmen or sophomores who have never played a minute of NCAA Tournament action. Many — including sophomore Tyus Battle and freshman Oshae Brissett — have performed quite well in the gauntlet that is the ACC, but facing the pressure of March will be a completely different test.
First Four: No. 11 Arizona State Sun Devils vs. No. 11 Syracuse Orange
Time: Approximately 9:10 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, OH)
Keys for Arizona State
The calling card for Syracuse under Boeheim has seemingly always been his 2-3 matchup zone defense. The teams that have been successful in beating it all have something in common: an ability to move the ball around the court to create mismatches, especially in the paint. Arizona State, who led the Pac-12 and was 14th in Division I in scoring at 83.5 points per game, must do just that to have any hope of taking down the Orange.
Entering this game, the Sun Devils averaged 14.2 assists per game, which is only eighth best in the Pac-12. While their 1.32 assist-to-turnover ratio is second-best in the conference (USC, 1.48), Arizona State will need to focus on consistent ball movement leading to easy baskets while taking care of the ball.
Keys for Syracuse
Syracuse’s biggest offensive strength — its free-throw shooting — feels like it goes under the radar because of its constant defensive pressure. The Orange both got to the line (721 attempts) and converted from the stripe (534 made FTs) more than any other team in the ACC.
Brissett (190) and Battle (185) are 1-2 in the ACC in free-throw attempts and made FTs, with Battle’s 156 made FTs giving him a slight upper hand over Brissett’s 152. If this game is close down the stretch, look for free-throw shooting to be a key differentiator and a place where Syracuse excels.
Much is made about Syracuse’s defense, but Arizona State will not be fazed by the pressure of the tournament stage in Dayton. The Sun Devils’ experience — and success —against top competition this season leaves Hurley and company in a great position to advance to face TCU on Friday in the Round of 64.
Prediction: Arizona State 80, Syracuse 68
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.