Pregame: Syracuse at Villanova

After Syracuse's huge win over #9/10 Georgetown on Monday night, the Orange have seemingly secured an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament as the regular season comes to a close. Still, Orange fans would be able to rest a whole lot easier if the team can stop red hot Scottie Reynolds and the Villanova Wildcats on Saturday at the Wachovia Center.

The Orange handed the Wildcats a75-64 loss back on January 13 with Terrence Roberts posting one of the best statistical games of his career with 17 points and 14 rebounds, including 10 crucial second half boards to help seal the win. In that game, the Orange held the usually strong shooting Wildcats to an 8-or-28 performance from beyond the arc, though star forward Curtis Sumpter finished the game with 24 points and 12 boards.

Since the last time these two teams met, Nova has gone 9-4 with notable wins over Notre Dame, Texas, Providence, and Louisville, along with completing their sweep of the Big Five with a decisive victory over St. Joe's. On Wednesday night, the Cats may well have punched their dance card with a 78-74 road win over UConn to boost their record to 20-9 and assure at least a .500 record in conference play, which will be huge in the eyes of the selection committee.

The victory over UConn also takes away some potential desperation from the Nova sideline, just as the Orange throttling of Georgetown relieves pressure for Jimmy B and his crew during Saturday's game. Instead of both teams potentially playing for their NCAA lives, Saturday's game will bring us a pair of squads looking to just put the finishing touch on their tournament resumes.

The Wildcats are led by Sumpter, Reynolds, and Mike Nardi, who is finishing up his (approximately) eighth season at Villanova. Sumpter (6-7, 225) is the team's top player, and a serious contender for Big East Player of the Year along with First Team All-Conference status. The senior from Brooklyn enters the game averaging team bests 16.9 points and 7.0 rebounds-per-game, and posted a double-double with 18 points and 10 boards in the win over UConn.

The versatile forward can get it done from anywhere on the court, with a solid handle, good shooting stroke, and strong rebounding ability, and two years ago could have arguably been considered for Big East Player of the Year honors. After blowing out his knee and getting surgery for the second time in his career, it's a bit miraculous that he's recovered so quickly and returned to top form for his final season in Philadelphia.

There are not many players in the country as hot as Reynolds right now. The 6-2 freshman exploded for 40 points against UConn, including six three pointers, before fouling out in the final minutes. Reynolds also led the Wildcats in scoring in each of the previous three games, and over these last four games has dropped 108 points for an average of 27 per contest.

Reynolds has also been shooting lights out lately, knocking down 21-of-41 attempts from beyond the arc. Still, his offensive repertoire is not limited to long range bombs. Against UConn, the quick guard repeatedly beat UConn defenders to the hole for driving layups. He has also demonstrated a solid ability to hit runners and pull up jumpers during the course of the season, and has almost certainly locked up his status as the league's top newcomer.

Nardi is the last remaining piece from Nova's four guard offense in the 2005-06 season, and like Sumpter and Reynolds is dangerous from beyond the arc. This season the 6-2 senior is third on the team in scoring, pumping in 13.1 points-per-game and knocking down 37.6% of his attempts from deep. Nardi can be a bit of a pest of a player, having hit several shots in big spots over the course of his career. He's the typical guard who gives the Orange fits, always coming up with two or three triples against the 2-3 zone.

Sumpter, Nardi, and Reynolds are all strong shooters from deep. Along with Nardi's solid percentage, Sumpter makes 37.7% of his tries from long range, and Reynolds is shooting a team-best 39.7% from deep. The trio scores the majority of Villanova's points, though Shane Clark is an equally capable three point threat. Clark (6-7, 205) is hitting 38% of his attempts and averages 8.0 points-per-game, though his overall shooting is a pretty dismal 42.7%. Clark has primarily been the team's 6th man this season, though he has started in 10 games.

One player sure to be in the starting lineup is Dante Cunningham (6-8, 225), who teams with Will Sheridan (6-8, 240) to man the post for the Wildcats. Cunningham puts up respectable numbers, averaging 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 55.6% from the field. He is also solid at the charity stripe, making 73.6% of his attempts. He is a solid rebounder, and in Big East play he has collected more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds, and could give the Orange fits if that trend continues given the poor job that Syracuse sometimes does on the defensive glass.

His running mate, Sheridan, has been referenced this season by some pundits as one of the best "glue guys" in the league, if not the country. Sheridan does not impress you with his numbers (5.3 points, 5.0 rebounds-per-game) but he's a tough, scrappy player with a knack for keeping balls alive and no fear of floor burns. For a big man his field goal percentage leaves something to be desired (44.4%), but like Sheridan he is capable of getting it done at the free throw line (73.2%).

In fact, by and large this is an excellent free throw shooting team that Jay Wright has assembled. Collectively they make 77.3% of their attempts, with Sumpter, Nardi, and Reynolds all hitting on at least 81% of their foul shots. Nardi leads the way at 87.3%. Needless to say, this is a not a team you want to be putting at the stripe with the game in doubt.

While this is a good shooting and talented Villanova team, it is not a particularly deep squad. Apart from Clark, only Reggie Redding (6-5, 205) and Bilal Benn (6-5, 205) average more than 10 minutes-per-game, and neither is particularly productive in the time they receive. Redding scores just 2.5 points and has been woeful from deep, making only 4-of-32 attempts from beyond the arc. Overall he hasn't shot much better, making 29% of his shots.

Benn shoots better at 50%, but chips in just 2.1 points in his limited action. The only other player to see any significant time this year has been Dwayne Anderson (6-5, 215), who averages 3.7 points while shooting just 26.5% of his three pointers. However, he is an excellent free throw shooter, making just under 91% of his attempts.

Villanova has abandoned the four guard set it used to attain a one seed in last season's NCAA Tournament for a more traditional look, but the Wildcats are still undersized and rely primarily on perimeter play to win games. One quality that carries over from last season is despite being undersized they have tough, physical perimeter players to counteract the lack of height and bulk inside. In fact, they out-rebound their opponents by more than six boards per-game.

One thing that has plagued them this season, though, is turning the ball over. Only two players on the roster have a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (Nardi, Reynolds), and collectively the Wildcats have 384 assists compared to 408 turnovers.

In the previous meeting with Villanova, the Orange fell behind early but rode the hot shooting of Demetris Nichols and the strong overall performance by Roberts to run away with the 11 point victory. Nichols nailed 5-of-6 treys and finished with 23 points, 18 of which came in the first half. The Orange also out-rebounded the Wildcats 37-27 in the game, though nearly half of Villanova's rebounds came on the offensive glass.

Lately, the Orange have gotten into a nice groove that many will notice has coincided with the emergence of Andy Rautins and a seeming banishment (illness-induced or not) of Josh Wright, and with Paul Harris getting more time as a part of the guard rotation rather than the forward rotation. Against a perimeter oriented team like Villanova, this should certainly continue, with Harris used to play tough, aggressive defense on a player like Reynolds while Nichols goes head-to-head with Player of the Year rival Sumpter.

Ideally, the Orange will play man defense against a Villanova team that can hurt you this much from the perimeter. However, if the Orange zone plays as tough and aggressively as it did in the Georgetown win, and if the wings can close out on shooters and disrupt passing lanes as well as they did against the Hoyas, it shouldn't matter what defense is played.

There is a myth that you never zone a three point shooting team. The fallacy in that is that as long as you've got smart wing players who can get out on shooters, along with guards who understand they have to help take away the high post and recover to the perimeter, you can certainly throw a 2-3 zone at a team like Villanova and walk away successful.

This, along with the continued strong rebounding of Roberts and Mookie Watkins, will be keys to the Orange leaving Philadelphia with a victory. Sumpter, Sheridan, and Cunningham will give the Orange forwards all they can handle on the defensive glass, so strong and physical interior play is essential.

This game loses a bit of its desperation with both teams now having seemingly secured NCAA berths, yet at the same time it provides yet another resume padding victory and a better seed. With the idea of seeds in mind…

PREDICTION: …the Orange will come away with the victory. Syracuse has more at stake in this game, plain and simple. It would be a nice home win for Villanova, but Syracuse is fighting for the fourth seed in the Big East Tournament and a pivotal bye next week at Madison Square Garden.

The Orange have been on a roll lately, and that trend should continue in the City of Brotherly Love. Reynolds and Sumpter will get their points, and Nardi will make two or three triples, but the hot shooting of Nichols and Rautins, the continued evolution of Eric Devendorf into a point guard, the emergence of Paul Harris as a one man wrecking crew off the bench, and the solid, mature play of Roberts and Watkins in the post will be too much for Villanova. Look for a tough, hard fought game with the Orange coming out on top by five to 10 points.

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