South Florida Season to Date: The Bulls opened the season looking like a team that would struggle to win more than a handful of games in Big East play. In the span of the opening week of the season, they lost to Cleveland State, Buffalo, and Rhode Island. After the loss to the Rams, they started to turn things around with a 100-69 victory over Florida Atlantic, then rattled off 9 wins in their next 10 games, including a 1 point victory over a pretty good Florida State team. Outside of that win, they haven't really beaten anyone of significance, but wins are wins, and if you reel off a string of them, you must be doing something right. The Bulls also won their Big East opener over a hapless Rutgers team in convincing fashion, 68-45.
Meet the Bulls: South Florida has a pair of very talented players in Kentrell Gransberry and Dominique Jones. Gransberry is a very athletic and physical center who averages a staggering 11.5 boards per contest. Jones is an excellent perimeter shooter who is leading the team in scoring at 16.2 ppg while shooting 46% from beyond the arc. He is also known as a strong defender and is second on the team in assists and rebounds per contest.
Gransberry's offensive output (15.2 ppg) is somewhat hampered by the fact that he makes only a little more than half of his attempts from the charity stripe (a big guy who can't make free throws - sound familiar?), but he is a demon on the offensive glass and is every bit as explosive as Justin Burrell in terms of leaping ability. Yes, that Justin Burrell, the one who just torched the Orange for 21 points and 12 boards on Wednesday night.
The Bulls employ a lot of three guard rotations with Chris Howard and Jesus Verdejo joining Jones on the perimeter. Both of these guys are capable of scoring in double digits. Howard does most of the ballhandling and leads the team in assists, while Verdejo is the more dangerous shooter on the wing. Soloman Bozeman, another wing player, is struggling with his outside shot this year but he has been a reliable shooter in the past.
Outside of Gransberry, USF has very little size, with Orane Chine (6-7 FR F) and Amu Saaka (6-6 SO F) leading the way in minutes played among forwards. Neither is much of a scorer, although Chin is a decent rebounder and has connected on 42.1% from 3 point range in limited attempts (8 of 19).
Game Outlook: With the second half of Syracuse's Big East schedule looking absolutely brutal, it is imperative for Syracuse to pick up early conference victories against the teams that don't project to finish near the top of the league. South Florida has certainly played above expectations thus far in 2007-08, but Syracuse still has the more talented roster, with better size and athletes. USF does not have anyone who can clearly match up with the size of Donte Greene on the wing or the quickness and playmaking of Jonny Flynn on the perimeter. The matchup of Gransberry versus Arinze Onuaku is certainly intriguing and could easily go in favor of South Florida, but don't expect the rapidly improving "One Man Mountain" to back down from the challenge. Keeping Onuaku out of foul trouble and on the court will be of utmost importance.
USF has been a fairly efficient offensive team this year. They connect on 46% from the floor, have made threes at a very good clip, and have a solid 1.2:1 team assist to turnover ratio. The 'Cuse defense has been up and down all year, looking downright pathetic in losses to Rhode Island and UMass, but improving incrementally since then.
One of the keys to the modestly improved defense has been Boeheim's willingness to switch between zone and man to man defense in a more proactive manner. Rather than using the man to man as a last resort, he has sprung it on the opposition to keep them off balance and uncomfortable. While his players haven't been able to put together sustained segments of strong defense, they have generally been effective enough to make the defensive switches coincide with positive scoring runs.
The St. Johns game was a good case in point - the Johnnies pulled to within 30-28 against the zone, but SU was able to generate some distance by switching to the man to man to end the first half. In the second half when the Red Storm adjusted to the man to man and pulled back to within four, Boeheim adroitly switched back into the zone and the Orange went on a run to extend the lead to 11 points. This type of defensive flexibility will be important for Boeheim's team throughout the season, and look for him to continue employing this style on Saturday against the Bulls.
The keys to the two defenses will be how well SU can keep Gransberry off the offensive glass when they are zoning and how well they can defend Jones on the perimeter when they are playing man to man. It will be interesting to see who gets the assignment of guarding Jones. Paul Harris might be the obvious choice, but his penchant for getting sucked into following the ball has resulted in him giving up way too many open looks from the perimeter this year. He can't afford to do that on Saturday against a shooter as good as Jones, who is coming off a 24 point game in which he canned all 5 of his three point attempts.
Prediction: Look for Syracuse to pull out a win in South Florida's first trip to the Carrier Dome as a member of the Big East conference. Most new Big East teams go through an adjustment period of playing in the Dome and it takes them awhile to get to the point where they are comfortable enough to win. Rutgers, for instance, still has yet to beat the Orange in the Dome since joining the league in 1996. It probably won't be easy to hold down a player as good as Gransberry, but SU's balance and offensive firepower should be enough to give it a 2-0 start in league play. Syracuse 82 South Florida 70