By Andrew Kahn
The obvious choice for Syracuse Freshman Most Responsible for Elite Eight Comeback is Malachi Richardson, who scored 21 points in the second half against Virginia on Sunday. But who was knocking down big threes, blocking shots, and sealing the game with clutch free throws? Freshman Tyler Lydon, the out-of-position sixth man who plays starters’ minutes.
The key to Syracuse’s 25-4 run to beat Virginia was the Orange’s press. The Cavaliers turned it over a few times, but they also got several two-on-one opportunities in transition after escaping the pressure. Lydon was often the last line of defense, and he was very effective. At 6’8” with a 7-foot wingspan, Lydon used his length and athleticism to deny Virginia easy baskets. He blocked five shots in the game, including four in the second half, and has 17 blocks in his last three games. His incredible swat in the closing seconds sealed the win against Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
“[Lydon’s] defensive play tonight was huge,” Jim Boeheim said after the Virginia win. After commenting on his block total, he added, “That’s pretty good for a skinny guy that can’t play center, or so everybody said.”
Lydon does not start, but his 30 minutes per game are fifth on the team, well ahead of starter DaJuan Coleman. Against Virginia, Lydon entered four minutes into each half and didn’t come out. He replaced the taller, bulkier Coleman at the middle of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, and the defense and rebounding didn’t slip. Plus, he provides outside shooting.
In the second half on Sunday, he nailed a three off a pick-and-pop when his defender stayed with gunner Trevor Cooney, and swished a very deep three to cut the deficit to 58-55, sending the Syracuse contingent into a frenzy. His first-half three was just as memorable, as he lost his shoe earlier in the play, but still shot-faked his defender, side-dribbled, and splashed one from deep.
For the season, he’s averaging 10.2 points and 41 percent shooting from deep. He has attempted 141 two-point shots and 115 threes.
Against North Carolina in the Final Four, the top-75 recruit from Elizaville, a small town in New York, will be critical. In the first regular season matchup, Boeheim’s first game after serving a suspension, Syracuse led by six midway through the second half but lost 84-73. The Orange lost 75-70 in Chapel Hill on February 29.
Lydon tallied just two points (on four shots) and one rebound in the first matchup, and played 23 minutes, fewer than Coleman. After the game, Boeheim was asked why Lydon’s offensive efficiency had declined since the start of conference play. “He’s a freshman,” he said. “He’s just trying to feel his way around. He’s just not quite ready yet, physically. I think he’s doing a good job, but he’s just not quite ready yet…He’ll get there. He has work to do but he’ll get better as time goes on.” Lydon was a much bigger factor—12 points and six rebounds in 36 minutes—in the second meeting.
Carolina’s frontcourt, led by All-American Brice Johnson, is the best in college basketball. The Heels are third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom, and they rarely get their shots blocked. Lydon will be counted on to provide some complementary scoring and keep the Carolina bigs from dominating the glass. No easy task, but no more difficult than what Lydon and Syracuse have done to get to Houston.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.