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How will Michigan State handle Syracuse’s stifling zone defense?

The matchup to watch in this game is going to be how the Spartans attack the Orange’s zone defense.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round: Bucknell Bison vs Michigan State Spartans Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Scoring hasn’t been an issue for Michigan State for most of this season. With so many offensive weapons and talented players, it makes sense that the Spartans rank in the top 40 nationally in points per game, field goal percentage, three-point percentage and assists. However, Sunday’s matchup against Syracuse will pose some possible hurdles for the Spartans, specifically the Orange’s stifling zone defense.

For how good Michigan State is on the offensive end of the floor, Syracuse is equally impressive on the defensive side. Jim Boeheim has turned Syracuse into the poster child for zone defense, and this year that scheme has continued to hold up with the best.

The Orange are giving up only 63.9 points per game — that ranks 12th nationally — and holding opponents to only 39.6 percent from the field — that’s the eighth lowest percentage in the country. On top of that, Syracuse is forcing nearly 13 turnovers per game, which could be an issue for the turnover-happy Spartans.

So how does the two-three zone work for Syracuse? Well, they basically try to take away scoring inside when you’re set up in your half court offense, and force you to shoot from outside. Syracuse’s opponents have jacked up 847 shots from behind the three-point line this year, which is an average of 24.2 shot attempts per game. That ranks in the top 20 nationally for three-point attempts given up per game — so basically they want you to beat them from outside.

For Michigan State that’s certainly possible with numerous shooting threats on the floor at all times for the Spartans. Michigan State ranks sixth nationally in three-point percentage, and has five different players that are averaging at least one made three-point shot per game and 37 percent or better in three-point percentage. So the Spartans have the guys to make shots from outside, but taking their front court out of the game could be a huge factor in this game.

With guys like Miles Bridges, Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr., the Spartans have arguably one of the best front courts in the country. When these three guys are on, it’s almost impossible to beat the Spartans, however, it could be very difficult for those guys to get into a groove against Syracuse’s two-three zone. If these three guys are not able to score in the paint, then it’ll fall on guys like Cassius Winston, Josh Langford and Matt McQuaid to make shots from outside.

Michigan State has the talent and resources to beat this zone defense, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. It should also be noted that the Spartans have struggled in the past against the zone and this could be a similar type of performance if they don’t hit shots.

The Spartans are shooting an abysmal 29.3 percent from three-point range in their last three games, which included a lackluster 5-for-17 performance against Bucknell in the first round on Friday. Those numbers won’t cut it in this kind of matchup, and will give the Orange a great chance at pulling the upset.

It’s pretty simple for what Michigan State must do in order to win this game — beat the zone. Syracuse is god awful on the offensive end so they’ll need their defensive ability to have any chance at winning this game. So if the Spartans beat the zone, then they’ll beat the Orange. It’s as easy as that.