No. 9 Baylor Beats No. 8 Syracuse, Advances to Face No. 1 Gonzaga in 2nd Round

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2019

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 21: Jared Butler #12 of the Baylor Bears shoots against Paschal Chukwu #13 of the Syracuse Orange during the second half in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 21, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Baylor Bears are one win away from their fifth Sweet 16 in 10 years.

The West Region's No. 9 seed in the 2019 men's basketball tournament defeated the No. 8 Syracuse Orange 78-69 in Thursday's first-round game in Salt Lake City. Syracuse was playing without guard Frank Howard, who was suspended for a rules violation.

Makai Mason led the way for the Bears with 22 points, four assists and three steals behind four made three-pointers, while Jared Butler (14 points, four assists, five rebounds, two steals and four made three-pointers) and Mario Kegler (13 points and four rebounds) provided enough support to clinch the win.

Baylor drilled 16 threes in an impressive shooting display against Syracuse's zone.

Elijah Hughes (25 points on 6-of-11 shooting from deep) and Tyus Battle (16 points) spearheaded the attack for the Orange in the loss.


Baylor Must Continue Red-Hot Shooting to Upset Zags

This game wasn't supposed to play out this way.

According to KenPom's pace-adjusted rankings, Syracuse plays with the 253rd-fastest tempo, and Baylor checks in at No. 291. The Orange use their 2-3 zones to give opponents fits—suffocating drives in the lane and rotating quickly on the perimeter to contest outside shots.

The ACC and Big 12 representatives missed the slow-rock-fight memo and instead combined for 19 three-pointers in the first half in a back-and-forth shootout filled with momentum swings and long-range barrages.

Jesse Newell @jessenewell

Baylor and Syracuse's 26 combined 3s a new NCAA Tournament record for this decade. Passes 25 from South Dakota State-Ohio State (2018) and ... KU-Purdue (2017).

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

Elijah Hughes & Makai Mason are lighting it up in SLC 🔥 The two combined for 9 threes in the first half! #MarchMadness https://t.co/IqV1RvqLCc

Mason—who was grimacing from his foot injury—did much of the heavy lifting in the early going for Baylor. He drilled threes and then used his dribble penetration when the zone pressed up on him to set up his teammates. The Bears also flashed players to the high post at times and then kicked to the weak side to beat the 2-3 look.

Hughes lit it up from deep for the Orange as well, adding to the entertainment factor as the sides traded blows.

The Bears must continue shooting the lights out if they are to stun the offensive juggernaut that is Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs are No. 1 in KenPom's offensive efficiency rankings and poured in 87 points in a victory over Fairleigh Dickinson on Thursday. They also led the nation in points per game during the regular season and can go to West Coast Conference Player of the Year Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Zach Norvell, Josh Perkins or Killian Tillie.

Dana O'Neil @DanaONeilWriter

Makai Mason took a 2-point shot on the last possession for Baylor. He will be slapped on the wrist for such nonsense. 3s only here.

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

BAYLOR FROM THE LOGO! 🚨 #MarchMadness https://t.co/26jlc0PFmi

Matching Gonzaga in a track meet is a daunting task for any team, let alone one that typically plays at a slow pace.

The only way Baylor can upset the West Region's top seed is by keeping slowing the tempo, keeping it in the half court and shooting like it did in Thursday's thriller. That type of marksmanship will prevent the Zags from getting out in transition with Norvell and Perkins handling the ball and the other playmakers filling the lane, and it will be easier for the Bears to swarm Hachimura in half-court sets.

Gonzaga's defense isn't invincible, either, and it struggled at times outside the weaker West Coast Conference. It allowed 103 points to North Carolina, 92 points to Creighton and 87 to Duke and figures to give up open looks in Saturday's  game.

Baylor knocked down those open shots against Syracuse and can shake up the entire bracket if it does so again in the next one.


What's Next?

Baylor will face the top-seeded Bulldogs in the round of 32 on Saturday.