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Slow Zone: Grinding pace brings intrigue to Baylor-Syracuse matchup
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Syracuse isn't riding a wave of momentum into the NCAA Tournament, but its recent history says that's no big deal.
The Orange snuck into the NCAAs last season after losing four of their last six games ... and then they won a First Four game and two more before narrowly losing to Duke in the Sweet 16.
Three years ago, Syracuse staggered in as a No. 10 seed after losing five of six. The Orange then ripped off four consecutive victories in a thrilling ride to the Final Four, where they were stopped by North Carolina.
So, it's nothing new that Syracuse is limping into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed in the West Region, where they will play No. 9 Baylor in Salt Lake City on Thursday night.
"I think we're in better position than we were last year in terms of how we're playing," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. "But it's a tough road. We'll see what happens."
Syracuse (20-13) has two victories in the past seven games.
Baylor (19-13) is also hoping that pre-tournament momentum means nothing. The Bears have lost four consecutive games.
"I don't necessarily think we've been playing terrible," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "I think in each game, there's been areas where we didn't do enough to win, but there's no sense of falling apart."
That Baylor is in the NCAA Tournament at all is impressive.
The Bears were picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 preseason coaches' poll, lost standout sophomore forward Tristan Clark to a season-ending knee injury Jan. 8, and then navigated injuries to senior guards Makai Mason (foot) and King McClure (knee), who each missed several games.
"They really maximized their ability as far as playing for one another and really bought into serving one another and caring more about the team than themselves," Drew said of his players.
"Individually, talent-wise, people had us picked ninth or 10th for a reason. I really think the guys competed hard. As a coach, you always can hang your hat and go to bed at night knowing that as long as a guy's played hard, that's half the battle."
Mason, a grad transfer from Yale, averages a team-high 14.6 points per game.
The Bears are not tall, mostly going with a lineup in which no player is taller than 6-foot-8, but they are tough and rugged and gang rebound with passion. Baylor has a plus-6.3 rebounding margin.
Mark Vital, at 6-5, 230 pounds, averages 7.2 rebounds per game, with nearly as many offensive boards as defensive.
Drew's zone defense has been a foundation of Baylor's success in recent years, although he will switch to a man-to-man to create different looks. Both sides in this matchup should be content with a slow-paced grind, with Baylor having to solve Boeheim's celebrated zone that is holding foes to 39.7 percent shooting this season.
Junior guard Tyus Battle leads Syracuse with 17.2 points per game, but he missed the past two games because of a bruised hip. He practiced Sunday and is expected to be close to 100 percent Thursday.
Junior forward Elijah Hughes, in his first season of eligibility at Syracuse, is averaging 13.4 points. Sophomore forward Oshae Brissett averages 12.4 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Maybe another NCAA run is coming.
"We've got some tournament experience," Boeheim said. "Those guys are all back that have experience, and our younger guys have had some opportunities to get better."
--Field Level Media
Updated March 18, 2019