Syracuse Prepares for Washington

When the Syracuse Orange take the floor this afternoon, they'll be facing the Washington Huskies for the first time in program history. More importantly, the Orange will be trying to rebound from a dismal performance in Wednesday's 79-65 loss to Ohio State as they fight for 3rd place in the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden.

The task at hand won't be easy, as the Huskies proved to be a solid team in their own semifinal loss to No. 15 Texas A&M, a 77-63 defeat that was closer than the score would indicate. In reality, they played the Aggies much tougher and more closely than the Orange played the Buckeyes, thanks to the strong play of Jon Brockman and the emergence of freshman guard Venoy Overton.

Both the Orange and the Huskies enter the game with records of 3-1, and both squads boast nearly identical scoring averages. Washington puts up 79 points per game, while the Orange pour in 78.5. The difference so far has been defense, with the Huskies outscoring their opponents by an average of nearly 12 points per game, while the Orange are giving up 75 points per contest.

Much of that is due to the multitude of turnovers and poor defense that has plagued the Orange so far this season. Over the course of the first four games, Syracuse has already turned the ball over 69 times. Against Ohio State, the well coached Buckeyes were able to expose and exploit several glaring weaknesses on the defensive end of the court, notably the lack of rotation to the wings and corners, the inability to defend the pick and roll, and the lack of recognition in defending shooters. Too often the top Buckeye shooters found themselves with wide open looks, and too often they cashed in.

The season so far for Washington has included an easy win over New Jersey Tech, followed by an 83-77 win over Utah to advance to MSG. In that game, Brockman put together a monster game with 31 points and 18 boards. Like Syracuse, the Huskies sandwiched another out of conference game between PNIT tilts, defeating Eastern Washington 82-68, and finally dropped their game to Texas A&M this week.

As far as the personnel goes for Washington, coach Lorenzo Romar may have one of the best post players you've probably never heard of in Brockman (6-7, 245), a junior that plays a similar game to Tyler Hansbrough and Kevin Love. He's a bit undersized but very strong, and loves to mix it up on the boards. He can step out and hit from the mid-range and is deceptively athletic and runs the floor fairly well for someone of his size.

So far this season Brockman is averaging 22.5 points and 12.5 boards per game, including four each game on the offensive glass. He's shooting 52.9% from the field and has been solid but not spectacular at the line, making 66.7% of his free throw attempts. To this point he's been getting to the line pretty regularly, averaging six trips per game, a sign that he doesn't mind a little scrumming on the interior. Against A&M he scored 21 points and added 15 boards, though 11 of those rebounds came in the first half.

The only other player averaging double-figures for the Huskies is Justin Dentmon, a 5-11 junior guard who scores 11.3 points per game. However, his shooting has been porous so far this season, with a field goal percentage of 33.3% and a 23.5% clip from beyond the arc. He's scored 16 points twice this season but combined for just three triples in 10 attempts in those two games.

Perhaps the brightest surprise in the loss to A&M was the emergence of Overton, a 6-0 freshman who only scored four points in the game but was dazzling on the break. Overton was the catalyst to Washington's first half run that gave them the lead going into the break, showing the explosiveness to get up and throw down a slam and the agility and body control to make a crafty layup while slicing through the defense.

Overton is a very quick guard, and despite a tendency to get a bit showy with his ballhandling and passing, he turned the ball over just two times to go against his six assists versus the Aggies. He also comes into the game averaging 2.5 steals.

On the flip side, while he's an exciting player who clearly thrives in transition, this season he hasn't shown the ability to consistently hit a jumper. He's made just one three pointer in nine attempts and his hitting just over 33% of his field goal attempts overall. He comes into the game averaging 5.5 points and a team-best 4.8 assists.

Joel Smith (6-4, 205) and Quincy Pondexter (6-7, 220) are both athletic wing players but were each limited to two points against Texas A&M. Pondexter faced foul trouble all game and Smith attempted only two shots, but did grab seven boards. Smith has hit 4-of-6 from deep this season and averages 8.0 points per game, and Pondexter contributes 7.8 in the scoring column. Other contributors for the Huskies include Tim Morris (6-4, 215), a senior who averages 7.5 points on 53.8% shooting but has only attempted one triple all year (a miss), and Joe Wolfinger.

Wolfinger (7-0, 245) is a sophomore center who played 20 minutes against the Aggies after only having played a combined 16 against Utah and Western Washington and took advantage of the increase in playing time, scoring 12 points and hitting a pair of threes. He's got good size, but you won't see Wolfinger around the basket much, and that includes getting on the glass. In four appearances he's grabbed only five rebounds.

Overall this is a Washington team that loves to try to get out and push the tempo, perhaps in response to an overall lack of shooters and a plethora of athletic wings to go along with two quick smaller guards in Dentmon and Overton. As a team they are hitting 34.5% from deep, but they don't really venture past the mid-range very much.

Like Syracuse, turnovers have been a problem for the Huskies. Despite averaging a healthy 17.3 assists per game, they also turn the ball over 17 times every contest and only Dentmon has better than a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.

This will be a much different game for the Orange than the one against Ohio State, as Washington plays a different style and at a different pace. The Buckeyes were great at playing in the halfcourt and moving the ball around, making the extra pass to get a great look, while the Huskies will try to get a shot early in the possession and would prefer to get the ball off of the defensive glass and really push it up the floor.

They're active on the offensive glass, something that the Orange bigs will have to be prepared for. If Donte Greene and Arinze Onuaku don't do a better job of throwing a body into the crashing offensive players, it could mean lots of second and third chances for Washington.

While Ohio State shot extremely well and boasts several top flight shooters, Washington likes to work closer to the basket and primarily through Brockman. Again, much of the responsibility falls on the defensive work of Onuaku and Greene, who must improve on Wednesday's terrible showing.

However, the fact that the Huskies like to attack the rim means that the Orange can also pack the zone in a bit more and double down, but they must be ready to rotate better and recover when players like Brockman kick the ball back out to the wing or, more importantly, the high post, because while the Huskies aren't particularly adept at hitting from 20 feet, virtually everyone on their roster has the ability to hit from 15.

A potential bright side is the fact that the Huskies like a faster tempo, which plays into the strength of this Syracuse team. That is the simple fact that the Orange are built to run. When the Orange struggle, it's always when things become stagnant in the halfcourt offense and when they've got to defend for more than 15-20 seconds, and when they thrive is when they can get the ball off the glass and get out in transition, because when the starting lineup is on the floor there are four people who can legitimately run the break.

This should be a good test for the Orange, as this Washington team is better than many probably think. The keys will be playing good interior defense on Brockman (and interior defense has been terrible all season) and containing the amount of opportunities that Overton and Dentmon have to push the ball up the court. Transition defense has been lacking for the Orange, and today is a day that definitely needs to change.

Expect a high scoring affair, and expect Jonny Flynn to bounce back with a much better overall game going against a similarly quick and explosive guard in Overton.

Prediction – Syracuse 84, Washington 77

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