The Marquette Golden Eagles have lost three of their last five games, including blowing a 17-point second half lead in Washington DC, against Georgetown on Wednesday night.
That means worst game possible for the team would be their next one: playing at the number one team in the country, undefeated Syracuse.
When the Orange became the number one team in the country a few weeks ago, it was perceived that they weren't actually the nation's best. Many thought they were just next in line after teams like North Carolina and Kentucky lost games.
Now, they seem to be in a league of their own, one of four teams left unbeaten in the country, and flying high under head coach Jim Boeheim.
The Orange's toughest game was when they hosted Florida early in December, which they won by four. They followed that with a six-point win over Marshall. Ever since that point, SU has won each of the seven games by 14 points or more.
In years past, Boeheim had not gone to deep into his bench, playing usually seven, maybe eight deep. This season, Syracuse has six guys who average at least 20 minutes per game, and then four more who are in double figures.
The Orange's leading scorer is senior forward Kris Joseph. Joseph is the team's leader this year, after the graduation of last year's go-to big man Rick Jackson. He presents a match-up problem at six-feet-seven, as he can score from anywhere on the court. He's averaging a team-high 13.9 points per game. He also chips in five rebounds per game, while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Freshman forward Rakeem Christmas has started all 16 games for the Orange, but averages only 12.8 minutes per game, scoring 3.6 points and grabbing 3.1 rebounds per game.
C.J. Fair comes off the bench, and plays the majority of the minutes with Joseph, averaging 25.0 a game. The six-foot-eight sophomore averages 8.4 points and 5.0 rebounds, and brings athleticism that Christmas doesn't. He's a high-energy guy on the boards and on the defensive end.
Junior forward James Southerland also comes off the bench and is averaging 8.3 points per game on 56.2 percent shooting on the season. He has hit 20 three-pointers in 16 games.
Speaking of defense, you can't really talk about Syracuse without talking about sophomore center Fab Melo. Unlike some other sophomores who struggled their freshman year, Melo has made some great strides this year. He averages 3.1 blocks per game (6.0 per game in three conference games), and recorded 10 of them in the team's Big East opener against Seton Hall.
He looks much more confident down low, averaging 7.4 points and a team high 5.3 rebounds. At seven-feet-tall and 244 pounds, Melo only averages 22.8 minutes per game, but makes the most of them.
Without Chris Otule, Marquette will have a tough time matching up with Melo, and may have to play a bit of zone against Syracuse, as six-foot-eight Davante Gardner or six-foot-six Jae Crowder may have trouble going man-to-man against him.
In the Orange backcourt, you can find a very impressive trio of sophomore Dion Waiters, junior Brandon Triche, and senior Scoop Jardine.
Waiters has come off the bench in all 16 games this year, but is still the team's second leading scorer at 12.6 points per game. Inconsistency plagued Waiters at times last year, but that hasn't been a problem for him this year.
Triche and Jardine are the starting guards. Triche averages 10.3 points per game, and can do it all on the offensive end. Jardine is averaging 8.7 points, shooting 54.3% from the field, including 67% from inside the arc.
As a team, Syracuse averages an impressive 7.6 blocks and 11.1 steals per game. They force their opponents into an average of 18.9 turnovers per game, which leads them to be one of the country's most efficient teams in transition.
The Orange shoots 49.9 percent as a team from the field, as a result of their size and ability to get out in transition.
Something that should be helped by their size is rebounding, but they only average 36.1 rebounds per game, with their opponents at 34.1.
With Syracuse comes their patented 2-3 zone, which they generally play the whole game. This season they have shown glimpses of man-to-man due to their athleticism and depth. The 2-3 zone is generally difficult for opponents to break down but Marquette was able to do so last year, beating the Orange in each of their matchups.
Marquette beat them twice last year, so they have a good idea of how to beat it.
Marquette keys to victory…
1. Get the ball in the middle of the zone. That is how you beat the 2-3 zone at any level of basketball, and Marquette has the players to do it. Guys like Jamil Wilson and Jae Crowder can get the ball at the free throw line or either elbow and score or dish it to a shooter outside. They know how to beat it, but doing it, in Syracuse, is extremely difficult.
2. Shoot well. A given in any basketball game, but Marquette needs to hit their shots from the outside if they want to have any chance. Darius Johnson-Odom and Todd Mayo need to be on, and Jae Crowder needs to be hitting his shots as well.
3. Play forty minutes. This is the most important, especially with their last three games. Against Vanderbilt, they started playing in the second half. Against Villanova, it was on and off throughout the game, as the Wildcats never went away for good, only losing by four. Then, the debacle at Georgetown goes without saying.
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