Aztecs/Orange NIT Pregame

The Syracuse Orange (23-10) play host to Steve Fisher's San Diego Aztecs (22-10) on Monday evening in the Carrier Dome. Both head coaches have National Championships to their credit, a most unlikely occurrence for a second round NIT game. The Aztecs are led by All-Mountain West guard Brandon Heath, a deadly perimeter performer. The winner of this game will take on Ole Miss or Clemson.

Syracuse looks to extend its post-season run behind another enthusiastic and passionate home crowd. At least 20,000+ fans are expected to turn out on Monday night to continue to voice their support for the Orange after their unexpected snub from the Big Dance. Syracuse overcame a sloppy start to their first NIT game before eventually getting hot in the second half and pulling away 79-73 over South Alabama.

San Diego State has been somewhat inconsistent this year, but that does not negate the fact that they are a dangerous and talented team. The Aztecs have impressive wins over California, Brigham Young, Air Force, and UNLV this season, and were 8-2 in their final 10 regular season games before getting upset in the first round of the Mountain West tournament by Colorado State. SD State also beat a strong Missouri State team in the first round of the NIT. They have gone 8-8 in road/neutral settings this year, so they may not be too intimidated by a trip to the Carrier Dome.

The Aztecs have very good size and team speed. Up front, they have a pair of 6-10 forwards in Jerome Habel and Mohamed Abukar. Both players are mobile and active and will match-up well with SU's interior duo of Terrence Roberts and Darryl Watkins. Habel (11 ppg, 6.4 rpg) does all his damage in the paint, while Abukar (15.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg) can step away from the basket to make the mid-range jumper. Abukar is an outstanding free throw shooter and goes to the line with good regularity.

While their interior duo is quite good, the main man for the Aztecs is 6-4 SG Brandon Heath (19.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.5 apg). Heath is a true all-purpose player who can score, rebound, pass, and defend. He has hit 84 three pointers on the season and has great quickness and body control on his drives in the paint. Heath has the ultimate green light from Fisher, as he's launched nearly 150 more shots than anyone else on the roster. It is also likely that Heath would have landed at a more high profile West Coast program had it not been for his grades coming out of high school.

Rounding out the backcourt is 5-9 SO point guard Richie Williams (7.1 ppg, 3.9 rbg, 4.7 apg) and 6-6 swingman Lorenzo Wade (10.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Williams is a very accurate three point shooter if left entire alone (46.8% 3pt), but he has only taken 79 attempts on the season. He prefers to run the offense and keep the games uptempo if possible. He was among the assists leaders in the MWC, but has also turned the ball over 99 times this year. Wade, a transfer from Louisville, is an aggressive slasher on the wing. He is a poor three point shooter, but is a surprisingly good shot block and can run the floor well.

Outside of Kyle Spain (6.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), the Aztecs have no other player who averages more than 8.5 minutes a game off the bench. Spain, a 6-5/229 lb forward, is the barometer for team play, as the ‘Tecs are 16-2 over the last two years when he scores in double digits.

Although SD State has been decent on the road this year, one has to suspect that the travel factor may give the Orange a distinct advantage. The cross-country trip can't be easy, and the change in climate may be frightening for the natives of southern California. Add to that the 20,000+ rabid fans and Syracuse's desire to prove the NCAA selection committee wrong, and this may be a tough excursion for the Aztecs.

Still, San Diego State comes into the Dome with the weapons to make this a great college basketball game. SU may frustrate the Aztecs on the perimeter, where only Heath and Williams are reliable shooters, but they have the size and team quickness/speed to compete in other facets of the game. While SD State does not have a single dominant rebounder, they take a "team" approach to rebounding and can compete on the glass with all 6 of their top players averaging 3.9 or more rebounds. Defensive rebounding has been a problem all year for the Orange, so they must keep Abukar, Wade, Spain, and Habel off the glass if possible.

Another key for Syracuse will be to extend out on Abukar when they are in the zone. Abukar is the type of player that Fisher may post in the seams of the zone to free up for mid-range jumpers or quick passes to wing cutters. We have seen in the past that the SU zone can be beaten with execution in the high post and Abukar may be able to exploit it in this manner.

The match-up between Heath and Devendorf promises to be an exciting one. Both are dynamic players who can score in a variety of manners. It should also be interesting to watch Nichols and Wade battle it out on the perimeter. Wade is very strong for a wing player and athletic enough to give Nichols fits. Syracuse cannot afford for Nichols to come out flat like he did against South Alabama.

Prediction: All things considered, look for a close, entertaining, and exciting game. My gut feeling is that Syracuse finds a way to win this game down the stretch. Syracuse 75 San Diego State 73.


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