South Florida Season to Date: This is South Florida's second year of Big East play. Last season they started conference play 0-15 before eventually beating Georgetown on the last game of the regular season. This year, the Bulls have a 3-8 record in league play and have already eclipsed last year's 7-22 overall mark. This is a much improved team that has been dangerous at home. They are 3-2 in Big East home games, but are yet to win on the road against a league opponent. The Bulls do have a few qualities victories, having beaten Notre Dame and Wake Forest, and they very nearly beat Marquette at home.
South Florida Personnel: Head coach Robert McCullum's club has already gone through one rather drastic re-alignment this season. Two current members of the starting lineup (Kentrell Gransberry and Jesus Verdejo) were unable to play until mid-way through December. Both players transferred from high profile programs (Gransberry - LUS, Verdejo - Arizona) and had to sit out the first semester due to NCAA rules. Fellow teammate Chris Howard, a 6-3 FR PG, just finished rehabbing a torn ACL and returned to the starting lineup 9 games ago. This trio of talented players should make a big difference in USF's future fortunes.
Prior to the return of Howard, 6-0 FR G Solomon Bozeman was running the point. He is now coming off the bench to provide instant offense as one of USF's few perimeter shooters. Howard is a decent assist man (~ 4 per game), but is better playing off the ball where he can concentrate more on scoring. He was not particularly careful with the ball in his earlier stints as the team's PG. Howard, on the other hand, is near the top of the Big East in assists at 6 per game, although he too is turnover prone.
The starting frontcourt is active and mobile. Gransberry has been a demon on the boards since becoming eligible - he is a double digit rebounder and can also score close to the basket. SU will have to limit his putback opportunities. Gransberry averages over 4 offensive rebounds per game. Joining Gransberry up front is SR PF McHugh Mattis. Inch for inch, Mattis may be the best shot-blocker in the country, as he averages nearly 4 a game despite standing only 6-6/190 lbs. He is also a decent scorer in the paint. Neither player is accurate from the free throw line (both under 60%).
USF's primary perimeter threat is Melvin Buckley, a 6-7 SR swingman from Chicago Illinois. Don't look for this guy to pass up many open shots - he's gone 5 consecutive games without recording an assist. Buckley is near the top of the Big East in three pointers made (69) and he shoots a respectable 37% from deep.
McCullum uses several players off the bench, but outside of Bozeman, none of them are big scorers. Adamu Saaka, Melvyn Richardson, and Eddie Lovett all see minute, but none averages more than 3.5 ppg.
Game Outlook: South Florida has some talent and should clearly be considered a dangerous team. Realistically this is a team that SU should beat, even on the road. However, SU has a history of playing very poorly in their first trips to the venues of new Big East teams. Last year, the Orange were demolished by a mediocre DePaul team in their first trip to Chicago. Prior to that Syracuse had several forgettable trips to Miami when the Hurricanes first joined the Big East.
At this point in the season, we all know what to expect from the Orange - the unexpected... This is a team that appears capable of beating almost anyone in the country, but also capable of losing to anyone on an off night. As such, they will need to play with a sense of urgency. Considering how crowded the middle of the pack in the Big East is, the Orange must make a move into 5th or 6th place to feel comfortable about an at-large NCAA tourney bid.
The SU zone will need to contain the offensive rebounding of Gransberry, Mattis, and even Melvin Buckley. One problem that SU has had this year in the zone is that it has repeatedly allowed smaller guards and swingmen multiple offensive rebounds on long missed shots. Buckley is the type of player who can snake through a crowd to retrieve a loose ball, so Wright, Devendorf, and Rautins will need to be well aware of this. Terrance Roberts and Darryl Watkins will need to concentrate on Mattis and Gransberry. Watkins played a stellar game against St. Johns on Sunday - let's hope he can keep it up. It would be nice to get a solid effort from both in the same game, for a change.
On offense, you can be sure that Boeheim will feature Demetris Nichols early and often. Nichols had a ridiculous hot streak in late December and his shooting performance in the last game could be an indicator for another offensive outburst. Syracuse will need him to sustain a 18 to 20 point scoring level for the rest of league play to finish out strong.
Look for Boeheim to continue grooming Eric Devendorf to take over running the offense from Josh Wright. Devo handed out 9 assists in the last game after starting very poorly. He also seemed to adjust his game considerably in the closing minutes - rather than force the issue and self-destruct, as he did at Louisville and Connecticut, he calmed down and tried to distribute and control tempo. SU will need more of that from him in the closing minutes if tonight's game is tight.
Prediction: I have to be honest and say that this game scares me. Syracuse SHOULD win, but the circumstances surrounding this game are similar to the circumstances surrounding last year's game at DePaul. Add the fact that South Florida has a very aggressive frontline that specializes in offensive rebounding and you have what could turn in to a bad match-up for the Orange. Still, given the importance of this game, I feel SU will find a way to win. If they can't keep Mattis and Gransberry off the glass, it could get ugly. Syracuse 71 South Florida 68