And now, it all comes down to this. One final shot, one last stand, and a lone senior fighting for his life to avoid finishing his storied career in the NIT, a humiliating fall for a legendary champion. Madison Square Garden has been good to the Orange in the past, and if they hope to climb back onto the bubble, let alone punch their dance card, it's got to be good to them again. If they are unable to recapture a little of the magic that carried them to a Big East Tournament Championship last season, then in a cruel twist of fate, McNamara's true final home game will be played in front of about 6,000 fans as opposed to 33,633.
For the Orange, the only option is to play like there is no tomorrow, and that begins with their first round match-up with Cincinnati. This will be the third meeting between the two squads, with each team cruising to victory on the other's home court. In the first meeting, the Orange dominated the Bearcats en route to their 15 th victory against only two losses. My, how quickly things can fall apart.
Since that meeting, the Orange have not so much tripped, but engaged in a total freefall to a 19-11 record, with nine losses in their last 13 games. That includes an embarrassing loss to the Bearcats, who outscored the Orange 42-24 in the second half after having trailed by one going into the locker room. Much of that was due to the Bearcats dominance on the glass in the second half, when they pulled down 24 of the 33 rebounds collected after the break.
Cincinnati has split its last four games since the meeting against SU in the Dome, defeating Providence and upsetting West Virginia, while falling to Seton Hall and losing a heartbreaker to Villanova. In their two wins over that stretch, the Bearcats combined margin of victory was five points.
Eric Hicks has been the heart and soul of this Cincinnati club all year, averaging 14.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game overall, but upping his numbers to 14.3 points and 10.3 boards in Big East play. His hardnosed work has earned him a spot on the All-Big East First Team. However, over the past few games Hicks has been inconsistent, and he's struggled against SU in the teams two meetings. Against Providence, Hicks scored only three points on 1-of-13 shooting, then rebounded with a 21 point, nine rebound performance against Villanova. That was followed by a nine point game against Seton Hall. Against West Virginia, Hicks again put up good numbers with 18 points and eight boards. In two meetings against the Orange this season, Hicks has averaged just 8.5 points, going 3-of-8 from the field in both games. Still, Hicks was a big part of the reason the Bearcats pulled off their dominant victory in the Carrier Dome, pulling down 11 boards, including five on the offensive end of the floor.
Hicks is not a great scorer, and he doesn't finish with a high percentage you might expect from an inside player. He makes up for that by playing with an intensity that should have Syracuse fans envious. He's a tireless worker and he is tenacious on the boards. In addition, Hicks has proven to be an outstanding shot blocker at 6'8", averaging 3.4 blocks per game, good for second in the conference. Even when he's not producing in the scoring column, the Bearcats are a better squad with Hicks on the floor.
James White has been the top scorer for the Bearcats this season, averaging 15.9 points per game and knocking down 36% of his three point attempts. White has also been close to automatic at the free throw line, hitting on 84% of his attempts. When White was a senior in high school, he had a reputation of being a high flyer without great basketball skills, so the fact that he's developed such a consistent stroke and has at times served as a point forward is a credit to his dedication and growth over the course of his career. He's still a high riser and one of the most exciting players you'll see this year, but he's added some other facets to his game and evolved into a complete player.
Still, White's numbers have taken a hit in Big East play, with his scoring average against BE opponents dipping to 14.1 ppg and his three point accuracy falling to 31.7%. He seems to be picking up his game a bit of late, however, hitting for more than 20 points in two of the last four games and knocking down 9-of-18 triples over that stretch. White has also had some success against the 'Cuse this season, scoring 16 in the first meeting and 18 in the second. White is the Bearcats' most versatile and potentially explosive scorer, and has emerged as a real leader for Coach Andy Kennedy. He earned Honorable Mention Big East honors this season.
Jihad Muhammad and Devan Downey have become a strong backcourt tandem for the Bearcats, with Downey earning a unanimous selection to the Big East All-Freshman team after averaging 12.3 points and dishing out 123 assists this season, along with leading the Bearcats with 59 steals. Muhammad, who began the season coming off the bench, has turned into a potent scorer thanks in large part to his outside shooting touch. Muhammad averages 10.7 points per game, but over the last nine games has been scoring at a clip of 17.2 ppg. He has hit 29 of his last 69 triples (42%), and is knocking down 36.7% for the year.
As Downey goes, so go the Bearcats. In wins this season, Downey has averaged 14.7 points and 4.8 assists. He has posted two double-doubles this year, including a 17 point, 10 assist performance in the win over West Virginia. That win, it should be noted, snapped the Bearcats' nine-game losing streak against ranked opponents.
Muhammad is the type of player who has always killed the Orange, a third or fourth option with the ability to knock down the three who explodes against SU's zone (think Colin Falls and Patrick Beilein). In the first meeting, Muhammad was limited to six points on 2-of-7 shooting, but when the Bearcats avenged their earlier loss he knocked down 4-of-9 triples en route to 19 points.
As Syracuse fans know, for every shooter who exploits the Orange defense there is always a limited big man who has a career game in an upset win. Each year it seems that a player many might consider a "stiff" and who is overmatched both physically and in terms of skill who finishes the game with monster numbers, and this year that player was Cedric McGowan in the Bearcats win at the Dome. McGowan, who averages 8.1 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 43.4% from the field, abused the Orange front line for 19 points and 9 boards in that last meeting.
The Bearcats have a limited bench, having been hampered by injuries this year, but one key contributor has been Chadd Moore, a 6'2" guard who averages just 3.3 points, but has had some solid games of late, including a 14 point performance in the loss to Villanova. Moore, who is shooting 28% from beyond the arc this year, hit 4-of-5 triples in that game.
As a team, the Bearcats have not exactly been impressive shooting the basketball, hitting on just 42.6% of their attempts from the field (and just 40.3% in Big East play). However, when the Bearcats have scored 70 points and shot better than 40% this season, they are undefeated. They are also an excellent free throw shooting team, knocking down 76% of their attempts collectively. Of the starters, McGowan has the lowest free throw percentage, but he is still solid 72.7%. They are not a great three point shooting team, hitting on 33% of their attempts, but in the last four games have hit 31 triples, and were 9-of-21 against the Orange on February 15. On the flipside, they were 4-of-19 when the Orange won at Cincinnati.
Keys for the Orange:
At this point in the season, there are three things that the Orange need to focus on if they hope to beat the eighth seeded Bearcats, let alone make the NCAA Tournament. Those things are:
Consistency – The Orange have been one of the biggest Jekyll and Hyde teams in recent memory, dominating Notre Dame, Cincinnati, and Louisville along with defeating West Virginia, and then having mind boggling performances against DePaul and Seton Hall, along with blowout losses to Georgetown and Cincinnati. The junior front line of the Orange has epitomized the lack of consistency all season. At times Mookie Watkins, Terrence Roberts, and Demetris Nichols have each looked like potential All-Big East performers, only to follow up those performances with the biggest disappearing act since Amelia Earhardt. For the Orange to succeed, they need their front line not to be spectacular, but to simply be consistent.
It seems that Watkins is finally coming around and beginning to understand what he's capable of doing night in and night out. Roberts, on the other hand, simply baffles with his play recently. He seems to rush everything when he gets the ball, he dribbles too much, and overall he appears to be wound incredibly tight, resulting in missed bunnies and short armed jumpers. To make matters worse, all of his missed free throws seem to have really gotten to him, and while earlier in the year you might have expected a 2-or-4 or 3-of-6 performance at the line, he's now beginning to make Shaq look like Calvin Murphy. In addition, to emphasize his wildly inconsistent play, in Syracuse's 77-58 win over the Bearcats Roberts scored 11 points and pulled in 10 rebounds. In the loss, he had a woeful line of three points, three boards.
Nichols started the season looking like a surefire All-Big East player and the best scoring option on the team. However, that all seemed to change after Nichols was completely shut down and abused by Rudy Gay and UConn (Nichols had a big second half, but the damage was done well before that, as evidenced by his hesitation to shoot the rock every time he gets it on the perimeter). He's still got the talent to be a consistent scorer, but right now he lacks the mental toughness, confidence, and consistency. In the first game against Cincinnati, Nichols was outstanding with 18 points and 10 boards. In the second game, he carried the offensive load for the Orange in the first half with 12 points. In the second half? One point, one rebound. For the Orange to be successful, Nichols simply cannot disappear. They are far too limited offensively for that to happen.
At times the Orange have played outstanding offensive basketball this season, but poor shot selection and ball handling decisions have killed them time and time again. They've been sloppy with basketball far too often, and even their most versatile scorer Eric Devendorf is consistently nonchalant with his passes and in bringing the ball up the floor. The Orange have looked their best, naturally, when they have moved the ball crisply and have avoided simply standing around watching Devo and McNamara dribble around the top of the key trying to make something happen. When the offense consists of Devo and G-Mac trying to create without any semblance of help, the results have been what you'd expect: stagnant (and pungent) offense.
Watkins has started to realize he's got the athleticism and strength to finish inside, and he simply needs to keep playing the way he's been playing. Roberts needs to slow down and realize that he doesn't have to move at 150 miles per hour when everyone else is going 75. Nichols needs to get a few easy buckets to get his confidence going, and then make an effort to stay in the offense as the game goes on. He simply cannot fade into the background. Much of this relies on Devo and McNamara attempting to get him involved early and keep him involved. The Orange are a much better team when Nichols is knocking down his jumpers.
And of course, where the Orange most need consistency is when it comes to their…
Intensity – Against Louisville and West Virginia, Syracuse saw a team that played active defense and crashed the boards. This is also true of the win (particularly the second half) over Cincinnati earlier this season. The Orange played with intensity on Sunday, and hung around with Villanova far longer than anyone could have realistically anticipated following the debacle against DePaul.
And, speaking of DePaul…
That was quite simply a game that displayed what happens when a team plays with absolutely no intensity. It was a lazy, lackadaisical showing, and not a single player seemed to understand the situation or play with any fire or passion. Fire, passion, desire, heart, pride, intensity…these things go hand in hand. The more you have, the better you'll be.
Villanova is a good team not only because they've got talented players, but they have talented players who are willing to kill themselves in order to win. Kyle Lowry is a not the most talented player in the world, but he's a great college basketball player because he plays with so much fire that he simply wills himself to succeed. That is the type of attitude that Syracuse needs to develop if they want to remain in the hunt for an at-large berth this season.
The Orange need to be active in the zone and active on the glass in order to beat the Bearcats. Look at the final margin of victory in both meetings between UC and SU this year, and then look at the rebounding margin. It's not exactly rocket science to figure out why the team that won was able to do so. As much as position is important with rebounding, these days no one has really worried about boxing out since Dennis Rodman, which means it's as much about simply going and getting the ball as much as anything. That, my friends, is all about heart and intensity. The higher the intensity level, the higher the chances of winning.
Right now, winning is all that matters. If the Orange can't win, they can't dance…and that leads to the final key…
Urgency – This is it, Syracuse. It's do or die time. The team showed some urgency in the wins over Louisville and West Virginia, and even in the loss to Villanova. That was a team that knew what was at stake. The team that lost to DePaul seemingly had no idea that the game actually mattered. They played it like it was a scrimmage in October, instead of a life or death (in terms of bubble status) game in March. The 'Cuse needs to head into New York City with the realization that this is it, this is the last shot, this is where they need to step it up and deliver the win at all cost. You know Gerry McNamara understands this. Let's hope that he can instill this sense of urgency in his teammates, and they can play their hearts out on Wednesday at noon. If they go down, at least they'll go down swinging. At least they can hold their heads up, knowing they gave it their best.
That, in a rather large nutshell, is what it is going to take for the Orange to win against Cincinnati on Wednesday. The Bearcats, despite being just 2-2 in their last four games, have been playing very well recently. The Orange, on the other hand, have not. This is a difficult game for Syracuse against a solid team that many see as a lock for the NCAA Tournament. A win on Wednesday might not make much of a difference for Syracuse in terms of NCAA consideration, but it will be hard for the committee to take Cincinnati over Syracuse if the Orange have won two of three meetings. Even under the assumption that the Orange would almost certainly fall to UConn in the second round, a 20-12 record with a high RPI and strength of schedule still gives SU a shot at dancing. A 19-12 record, on the other hand, means that the Scrantonites will be invading the Dome one last time.
The Orange carry over the emotions and fire they showed for most of the Villanova game and pull out a hard fought 72-65 victory over the Bearcats.