Preview: Syracuse @ No. 9 Notre Dame

Syracuse has struggled shooting from three-point range, but present a significant challenge to Notre Dame on the backboards, led by 6-foot-9, 250-pound senior Rakeem Christmas, who tossed in 29 points against Louisville last week.

• Game 29: Syracuse (17-10, 8-6) @ No. 9 Notre Dame (24-4, 12-3)
• Place: Purcell Pavilion; Notre Dame, Ind.
• Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
• TV: ACCN
• Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference
• Location: Syracuse, N.Y.
• Nickname: Orange
• 2013-14 record: 28-6 (14-4 in ACC)

Syracuse Head Coach
Jim Boeheim (39th year at Syracuse) -- Career record: 965-330 in 39th year at Syracuse.

Boeheim, 70, has been to three NCAA championship games, claiming the title with the Orange in 2002-03 and finishing runner-up in 1986-87 and 1995-96. He also took his 2012-13 team to the Final Four and has made two Elite Eight appearances (1988-89 and 2011-12). Boeheim has led Syracuse to six 30-victory seasons.

Syracuse Scouting Report
Notre Dame will have its hands full up front against 6-foot-9, 250-pound senior Rakeem Christmas, who has emerged from the shadows of other stars at Syracuse in recent years to average 18.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

Christmas has scored at least 20 points in seven of Syracuse’s last 11 games, including 35 in a mid-January victory over Wake Forest and 29 last week against Louisville. He has 11 double-doubles on the season, seven of which have come in ACC play. Christmas attempts a ton of free throws (170) and is a competent 70.2 percent shooter. He also has 84 offensive rebounds and 68 blocked shots.

Playing like a star in recent weeks is 6-foot-7, 200-pound junior Michael Gbinije, who is averaging 13.0 points per game on the season, but 22.5 over the last six games, including 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting in a recent loss to Duke.

Gbinije, a 50.2 percent shooter from the field on the year, has converted 40-of-67 in the last six games (59.7 percent). He is just a 55.8 percent shooter from the free-throw line, but a stellar 43.0 percent (43-of-100) from beyond the arc. Gbinije is second on the team at nearly four assists per game.

Boeheim usually has a sharpshooting guard, and this year – at least in theory -- it’s 6-foot-4, 195-pound junior Trevor Cooney, who is averaging 13.6 points per game. Back issues have contributed recently to a string of off shooting performances. He is converting just 32.7 percent of his 202 three-point attempts. He was 0-of-5 in Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh and is an anemic 19-of-82 (23.1 percent) from three-point range in the last 10 games.

The Orange pounds the backboards with Christmas and 6-foot-8, 212-pound sophomore Tyler Roberson, who averages 7.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Roberson had 19 points and 10 rebounds in a Feb. 14 loss to Duke.

The Orange absorbed a huge blow in January when 6-foot-10, 220-pound freshman Chris McCullough – who was averaging 9.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game – suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the rest of the season. At the time of the injury, McCullough was averaging two blocked shots per game.

Kaleb Joseph, a 6-foot-3, 165-pound freshman, averages just 6.6 points per game, but paces the Orange in assists at 4.2 per contest.
 
Syracuse-Notre Dame Preview
It’s been a tough season by Syracuse standards with the Orange losing six of their last 10 games. In fact, Syracuse hasn’t won two games in a row since opening ACC play with a 4-0 mark against mid-to-bottom-range ACC teams Florida State, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech.

The only real quality win by the Orange throughout the entire ACC schedule was a 10-point victory at home against Louisville, and that was when the Cardinals played without suspended-and-since-dismissed Chris Jones. Syracuse has lost by 13 at Clemson, 10 at North Carolina, twice to Pittsburgh, and at home by eight to Duke and four to Miami.

The Orange suffered a huge blow in the third conference game of the season when 6-foot-10 freshman Chris McCullough suffered a torn ACL. Syracuse won that and the next game to start out 4-0 in ACC play, but has failed to find its consistency over the last five weeks.

Syracuse is a poor shooting three-point team, converting just 31.5 percent with Trevor Cooney really fighting it in recent weeks. The Orange also can be erratic at the free-throw line. The question now becomes how motivated the Orange are with the self-imposed ban on post-season play.

Meanwhile, the Irish are incredibly motivated to keep the train rolling while still maintaining an outside chance of tying Virginia for first-place in the ACC regular season. Even if they fall short of that goal, there’s the ACC tournament and the inspiration to land a high NCAA tournament seed.

The Irish are coming off their most complete performance in a few weeks after an 87-70 victory at Boston College Saturday with a great opportunity to defeat the Orange in Purcell Pavilion, where the Irish have won two of the last three against them.

It’s a rarity for Syracuse to be such a prohibitive underdog, but the Irish are clicking on all cylinders while the Orange are simply trying to keep things together with little for which to play the balance of the season.

Notre Dame could get hammered on the boards against this glass-crashing squad, although they’re not the same without McCullough adding to the cause. If there’s a place where Trevor Cooney is likely to snap out of his shooting woes, it’s Purcell Pavilion, which has proven to be one of the friendliest shooting arenas in the country.

Look for a real battle Tuesday night with the Irish notching their seventh victory in eight ACC home tilts as they reach 25 victories for the fourth time in seven years under Mike Brey.

• Pointspread: Notre Dame by 8 ½
• Irish Illustrated Prediction: Notre Dame 74, Syracuse 69
• Season record: 20-8 straight up; 11-9 vs. points


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