Kansas State was expected to have a size advantage in its NCAA Tournament matchup with Syracuse, who was missing 7-foot center Fab Melo because of an eligibility issue.
But that didn’t turn out to be the case Saturday when Wildcats senior Jamar Samuels also was sidelined because of eligibility concerns.
Instead the Orange, which features a starting lineup of oversized guards and small forwards, was bigger at nearly every position. Syracuse used its length to confuse K-State after a few shaky moments, and the Wildcats missed 46 of 67 shots against the Orange’s 2-3 zone defense in a 75-59 loss.
“It really bothered our team,” K-State guard Martavious Irving said. “It’s hard to see over the zone and make passes from the perimeter. It’s hard to penetrate against those guys. Their arms are long. They took the ball from behind and closed the gaps. That is why their zone is effective. They’ve got tall, long guards. It worked really well for them.”
The only K-State player who didn’t seem bothered by it was Jordan Henriquez, a 7-foot junior forward who was the tallest person on the court. He continued his streak of strong games with 14 points and a career-high 17 rebounds.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him,” K-State coach Frank Martin said. “He is awesome.”
But getting the ball to him wasn’t easy.
Guards Will Spradling and Angel Rodriguez had to alter passes and shots against Syracuse defenders, and couldn’t feed the ball into the paint the way they normally do.
“They play that zone well, really well even without Fab Melo,” Henriquez said. “They did a great job of defending the paint. I think that was key to their victory.”
Freshman forward Thomas Gipson, who started in place of Samuels, scored eight points and grabbed eight rebounds, but K-State’s reserve big men were ineffective. Syracuse got 33 points from its bench, but K-State’s bench didn’t score at all.
The Wildcats were at their worst shooting in the first half, making eight of 34 attempts. Still, because of a fast start that allowed them to jump out to a 9-2 lead and a throng of offensive rebounds — K-State ended with 25 — the Wildcats trailed 25-24 at halftime.
They were in position to steal the game.
“I was extremely pleased at halftime,” Martin said. “We went through about a four-minute stretch where we turned it over four or five times that led to straight baskets for them. I told our guys if we make free throws and eliminate the turnovers, we are going to have a chance.”
They did, and briefly took a 30-28 lead in the second half. But Rodney McGruder, who scored 15 points, was slowed by a twisted ankle he suffered in the first half, Henriquez got into foul trouble and Syracuse began rebounding.
Syracuse began to pull away behind 18 points from Dion Waiters and 16 points from Scoop Jardine. They took a 45-34 lead midway through the second half. Rodriguez tried to get K-State back in the game with two quick three-pointers. But once K-State pulled within 47-42, Syracuse responded with two three-pointers and eight straight points. The Orange, 33-2, advanced to the East Regional semifinals in Boston.
“You know,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, “basketball can be a simple game. When you make some shots from the perimeter, it just changes things completely.”
That never happened for K-State, which reached the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season and finished 22-11.
“We didn’t make a run back at them,” Henriquez said. “They came ready to play in the second half. We were still focused. We didn’t lose focus. But we didn’t make our run back at them and that hurt.”
The Wildcats needed to make outside shots to mount a comeback. And that wasn’t happening.
“You can control your effort,” Martin said. “You can control your defense. You can’t control that ball going through the basket.”
After the game, K-State’s players felt terrible for Samuels. But no one draped towels over their heads. They said they were proud of what they accomplished this season, and think they should be capable of more next year.
“These guys, their refusal to feel like they are inferior to anybody and to line up and play with the class that our guys played with and to win games and deal with the hard times,” Martin said. “They answered the bell every single time. I’m ecstatic to have coached this group of kids.”