It's also difficult to assess how good Syracuse is because they have not been completely healthy almost the entire preseason. Starting center Darryl Watkins missed a couple of games due to a broken nose and played at less than a 100% in a couple of others. Power forward Terrence Roberts also missed two games because of a sprained knee and is still not at full speed. Eric Devendorf had a sprained shoulder that hindered his effectiveness, as well the challenge of coping with his best friend's murder. Back-up frontcourt player Matt Gorman missed the Pitt game with a sore foot.
Still, it is safe to say that Syracuse has an abundance of individual talent. The problem is that sometimes the talent doesn't mesh as well as it could. This, in essence, is the same situation that happened at times last season. The question is, "Which Syracuse team will show up on Sunday night?"
The leader of the Orange this season has been senior forward Demetris Nichols, who has raised the level of his play to the point that he is a serious contender for first team all-conference honors. He is averaging 19.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg and is shooting 48.8% overall, including 47.1% on three-pointers. He has scored in double figures in 14 of Syracuse 's 15 games, including nine games of 20 points or more. Last year, Nichols was content to stand outside the arc and rain three-pointers at the hoop – with moderate success. This season he diversified his offensive game so that now he is a danger to drive to the hoop, post up, or pull up for a mid-range jumper as well as shoot the trey. In short, he is very difficult to defend, especially since at 6'8", he can shoot over smaller players. When Boeheim needs someone to score, he generally calls Nichols' number, and, more often than not, he has delivered. How well has Nichols played? Well, he is ranked #11 among forwards and #19 overall by CBS Sportsline. Just as McDermott caused MU nothing but headaches Thursday night, Nichols may do the same Sunday as he is too tall for Matthews and too quick for Fitzgerald when he plays the 3, and too quick and athletic for any of our 4s when he switches to power forward at times.
Nichols, however, is not the only problem MU will face Sunday. Watkins, the Orange 's 6'11" senior center and Roberts, their 6'9" senior forward, are both long and athletic. Watkins is not the offensive threat that Herbert Hill of Providence is, but he's a solid rebounder (6.7 rpg) and shot blocker (3.5 bpg). He doesn't shoot often, but when he does, it goes in more often than not (57.9% field goal percentage). While he's averaging only 9.0 ppg overall, in the last five games, he's averaged 12.4 ppg, along with 9.4 rpg. If MU is to have a chance on Sunday, Barro must be a stronger presence than he was against the Friars when Hill completely dominated the paint.
As for Roberts, his scoring is down since last season to 8.8 ppg, yet he's still shooting a respectable 56.1% from the field. Plus, he's averaging 7.9 rpg, considerably better than anyone on MU's roster. He's had four games in which he's gathered double-digit rebounds. His best game was against Wichita State when he had 14 points and 12 rebounds. If MU doesn't do a better job of boxing out on the defensive boards, he could match those totals on Sunday. Because of his height, quickness, and leaping ability, he is a tough match-up for Lott, and because of his strength, he would be extremely hard for Fitzgerald to keep off the glass. He's taller and more explosive than Hayward and considerably quicker than Burke. In short, if he's even close to 100%, he could give Marquette's front line fits.
With the departure of freshman Mike Jones, who reportedly was homesick, and the injury to Gorman, there's not a lot of depth up front for Syracuse . Roberts can move to the 5, and Nichols can move to the 4, which allows Boeheim to play three guards, which the Orange do quite a bit.
As for the backcourt, the rotation has been somewhat unexpected. Last year Eric Devendorf earned all-rookie honors. Most Syracuse fans figured he was a lock to start again this year. Plus, this year's pre-season choice for Rookie of the Year, Hayward 's teammate at Notre Dame Prep, Paul Harris, was viewed as a likely starter, as well. However, junior Josh Wright, who had been a limited role player his first two years on campus, has gained the starting point guard spot, and sophomore Andy Rautins, seen as an eighth or ninth man at best, has started the past few games.
Wright has done a solid job as he's averaging 9.1 ppg and 5.0 apg. Not known as a very good shooter, he's surprised opponents by knocking down 41.7% of his three-point attempts and is shooting a respectable 44.6% overall. His assist/turnover ratio is 1.6/1.0. Wright is the only true point guard on the team, and he has done considerably better than I had anticipated, but I am still not sold on him. In the four games against Wichita State , Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Pittsburgh , he averaged only 6.5 ppg, considerably below his average.
While Rautins may start against MU, as he did against Pitt, he is nowhere near the threat that Devendorf and Harris are. In fact, Rautins is shooting only 35.6% overall and 34.3% from behind the arc.
Devendorf, however, can flat out score. He can shoot from the perimeter or drive to the hole – though he tends to go to his left almost exclusively. While he is averaging 12.2 ppg, he has been inconsistent. In his first six games, he averaged 16.0 ppg. After hurting his shoulder, he averaged 6.2 ppg in his next six games but has recovered to average 16.7 ppg in his last three games. In short, he's back on track, which is bad news for Tom Crean's warriors. Along with Nichols, the 6'4" sophomore is the Orange's main outside threat as he is shooting 38.2% from three-point territory.
As for Harris, his outside shooting has been a nightmare – one for 17 so far this year. However, overall, he's shooting 45.2% and averaging 10.7 ppg in 25.3 mpg. More impressive is his average of 7.5 rpg, exceptional for a player only 6'5". Harris is an explosive athlete, who will also present match-up problems for Marquette. He can play the 1, the 2, or the 3, which means different people will guard him during the game. MU's best bet, if McNeal can't play, is Matthews as he is too tall for James or Cubillan and too quick and strong for Fitzgerald. However, if Harris is at point or off guard, with Nichols at the 3, and McNeal is on the bench, Coach Crean has a real dilemma.
In general, MU doesn't appear to be in good shape with respect to individual match-ups. Syracuse is taller, quicker, and more athletic than Marquette. Boeheim's roster is stacked with highly-rated recruits, including Nichols (#31 in '03 on RSCI), Watkins (#34 in '03), Roberts (#42 in '03), Wright (#34 in '04), Devendorf (#22 in '05), and Harris (#23 in '06). On paper, the discrepancy in talent level and athleticism is huge.
However, somehow the Orange has not achieved as much collectively as their individual talent would suggest. Four home losses in the pre-season is almost unheard of, and the only time the Orange ventured away from their own territory, they went all the way to Buffalo to defeat a mediocre Canisius team by 10 points. This will be only their second away game of the season and their first away game in six weeks.
Syracuse can score (78.1 ppg), and they can shoot from behind the arc (38.1%). They can also block shots (7.7 bpg). Yet they've split their last eight games, all at home. There are two versions of the Syracuse team, the one that blew away Baylor and the one that lost four home games. Marquette will have to wait and see which one shows up Sunday night. Either way, MU had better be ready to compete. If MU plays the way they did against Providence, this could be another blowout loss. However, something tells me that's not going to happen, especially if McNeal plays and is anywhere close to 100%. What are the keys? Once again, the battle in the middle is critical. Marquette has to hold yheir own on the boards and not allow easy baskets. Once again, they have to rise defensively with respect to individual match-ups, which they didn't do against the Friars. And, finally, once again Marquette has to make their shots against a 2-3 zone defense. If they are not significantly better in that department than the four of 23 they hit from long range on Thursday night, this game could get ugly. I'm guessing that at the BC, Marquette does a much better job in all three areas.
**Eric Silver, aka "Silver Warrior", is a prominent poster at MarquetteHoops.com. He is also a contributing writer for CHN - College Hoops Network.