Pregame: Syracuse at Providence

Syracuse takes on Providence this afternoon in the first game of a crucial three game stretch that will likely determine its post-season placement. The Orange have won 4 of their last 5 games and now seemed poised to make a final surge towards an at-large NCAA tourney bid. The first order of business is to take out the Friars, which will be a formidable task, as they are 16-2 at home this year.

Providence Season to Date: The Friars are 17-9 overall and stand just a game behind the Orange at 7-6 in Big East play. These numbers place them firmly in the middle of the Big East pack, but a closer inspection of the their schedule shows that they are a different team at home than on the road. Providence is an impressive 16-2/6-1 when playing at the Dunkin' Donuts Center and their only losses are to Brown (an early season fluke) and Villanova. Their only road win in the Big East came at UConn, and they are combined 1-7 away from home. Unfortunately for SU, today's game will be at the Dunk, where Providence seems to play like a top-15 team.

Providence Personnel: The Friars are a very dangerous team because they have a diversified and balanced offensive attack. Four players average double figures in the scoring column, and three of them are pouring in more than 14 ppg. Leading the attack is SR PF/C Herbert Hill, an interior force who is shooting nearly 63% from the field. The 6-10/240 lb Hill has very good footwork and quickness around the goal, to go with great touch and smarts. He likes to use the glass as much as possible, and also isn't afraid to take it strong for power dunks. Watkins will have to concentrate on forcing him to catch outside of his comfort zone, as he does not possess much range. He is also the rare player who shoots a higher percentage from the floor than from the line (59.8% FT). Hill averages a tad under 17 ppg, more than 8 boards, and also leads the team with 66 blocked shots. He will be a serious contender for many of the Big East's post season awards.

Sharaud Curry complements Hill as the team's primary perimeter weapon. At 5-10, Curry has good open court speed, is a capable three point shooter, and is deadly from the line (89.7% FT). Curry is the team's number two assist man and functions as the team's primary ballhandler. Joining Curry in the backcourt is Weyinmi Efejuku, a 6-5 SO who can shoot, board, and defend. Efejuku is athletic and active and provides a lot of "length" to the Providence zone.

The last member of the double-digit scoring crew is Geoff McDermott. While he is not the team's leading scorer, he may be the most valuable player on the team because he can do a little bit of everything. McDermott shoots over 50% the field, leads the team in rebounding and steals, and can make the open three if left unguarded. Most importantly, at 6-7 he functions as a point forward and initiates the half-court offense. He averages a staggering 5.4 assists per game to go with his 9 rebounds and 11 points. Truly an all-purpose "glue" player.

The final starter is likely to be Jonathan Kale, a 6-8 SO PF who does all of his damage in the paint. He is a very mobile and athletic player and will step into a much bigger role next year once Hill is gone. Kale puts up 7 points and 4 boards in what amounts to half-time duty.

The biggest weakness for the Friars is a lack of depth. In recent games, Tim Welsh has played only 6 or 7 players. The one constant has been Brian McKenzie, who is a designated outside shooter. FR Ray Hall may see spot minutes up front subbing for Hill and Kale. The only other bench player of note is Dwain Williams, a 6-0 FR from California who has not played in a few games. He was a spot starter when Curry was suspended earlier in the season and filled in admirably at 12.0 ppg and 4.3 apg.

Game Outlook: Despite SU's mid-season tank job, there is reason for optimism with this team. The Orange have won 4 of their last 5 games and seem to have turned the corner. Coach Boeheim's mid-season's adjustments (that looked horrible at the time) seem to be taking root and his team finally seems to be gaining a true identity. Granted, the current three game win streak hasn't come against world-beater opponents, but the manner in which they are winning and adjusting is a welcomed site.

The most obvious change has been the late-game ball-handling focus. Around the time of the Louisville game, Boeheim put the ball in Eric Devendorf's hands in late/clutch situations. The initial results were disastrous, but he has shown in recent games that he is now up to the task. His playmaking ability has improved and he has cut down somewhat on the unforced errors. At the same time, Josh Wright's PT has taken a nose dive. He is averaging only 20.2 minutes during the current 4-1 stretch, whereas he was at 30 minutes per game prior to that. In league play, Wright has broken into double digits in scoring once.

The primary beneficiaries of Wright's reduced playing time have been Paul Harris and Andy Rautins. Do-it-all Paul was dynamic in SU's 73-63 win over UConn, posting 16 points and 11 rebounds. Dating back to the Hofstra game on December 22nd, Harris has had AT LEAST 8 rebounds in every game that he's seen 20 minutes or more. After starting off the Big East season in an extreme funk, he has averaged 8 points and 7 boards over the past 6 contests, despite playing less than 19 minutes per game. If he can continue to develop, the Orange will become much more dangerous.

Rautins has been equally important. He has taken a lot of pressure off Nichols by providing a legitimate third perimeter shooting threat and has averaged 12 ppg over the last 5 games and made 18 of 34 threes (53%). If you take out the zero point, 0-4 showing at UConn, he's at 15 ppg and 60% 3PT in the 4 wins!

For today's game, the Orange will need to be prepared for the Providence 2-3 zone. Welsh, a former Boeheim disciple, uses a lot of the same tricks that his teacher uses, the most notable being sideline traps. Providence's zone has been dominant at times, such as in their win at Connecticut, and more recently it held West Virginia to a horrible 9-41 shooting performance beyond the arc. The Friars have decent size and length and with Efejuku up front, they have a play similar to Kueth Duany in terms of ability to get into passing lanes and disrupt perimeter shots.

To effectively attack the zone, Nichols and Rautins will need to be able to connect on open threes and Devendorf will need to find the seams of the defense. Devendorf has been very good at attacking zones in the past, but he must remember not to dribble into double-teams and he must be willing to give the ball up when defenders rotate to him. There should be plenty of opportunities for Devendorf to employ draw-and-dish plays to set up the perimeter shooters.

This is a game where Harris's abilities may not be completely suitable. His "bull-in-a-china-shop" approach to driving the lane may not work against a packed-in zone, but on the other hand, his tremendous rebounding abilities may be just what is needed on the offensive glass. It will be interesting to see how Boeheim utilizes his ever-improving freshman.

The most important thing for Demetris Nichols will be to keep active and keep moving. Nichols has been at his best this year when he's been in perpetual motion - running around screens and working the baseline for turnaround jumpers. He should have plenty of opportunities to bust the zone if he is patient and continues to work hard.

On the defensive side, Boeheim needs to continue working on switching the defenses. In recent wins, he has used nearly equal portions of man and zone, and it seems that his Orange squad feeds off these switches while befuddling opponents. Since the loss to Notre Dame, the SU defense has rebounded to allow only 65.2 points per game.

If Hill goes nuts on the offensive glass and McDermott picks apart the zone with his precise passing, it may be time for some pressure or man-to-man. The Friars are near the top of the Big East in turnovers committed and can be forced into making mistakes. A common theme in Providence losses is a high "points off turnovers" factor. Syracuse must convert Providence miscues into easy points when given the opportunity.

Prediction: Providence is a very dangerous team, especially when playing at home. The Orange need this game badly to improve their NCAA resume, and given the fact that they have played with a sense of urgency over the last 3 games, there is no reason to think that will stop today. The only thing that might enter the equation here is the "look ahead" factor with Georgetown coming to the Dome on Monday night. If SU can focus today, they should be able to take care of business in a close, hard-fought game. SU 73 Providence 67.


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