Pregame: Syracuse at Cincinnati

The Orange head to Cincinnati for the first Big East road game of the year on Wednesday evening. Syracuse is looking for its second 3-0 conference start in the past three seasons against an experienced but disappointing UC squad. The Bearcats have dropped 6 of their last 8 games, but did stun Louisville in Freedom Hall on January 1 for their only Big East victory thus far.

The Bearcats stand at 6-8 on the year and are 1-1 in conference, having recently lost on the road to St. John's by a final margin of 70-58. Earlier this season the Bearcats dropped some games to the likes of Belmont, Bowling Green, UAB, and Illinois State in addition to some close losses to Xavier, NC State, and national powerhouse Memphis. The Bearcats played very well against Memphis, trailing by only six points with under four minutes to play before running out of gas down the stretch.

In addition to toppling Louisville, the Bearcats have picked up wins against Western Carolina, Coastal Carolina, Fairfield, Miami (Ohio), and first year Division I program USC Upstate, which is not to be confused with any AAU clubs boasting similar monikers.

Syracuse holds a 3-1 edge in the series with Cincinnati, which began only recently in the 2005-06 season. Despite the two game edge, the Orange have only outscored the Bearcats by a total of 293-289 in those four games, with each of the last two contests (both Syracuse wins) being decided by a single point. Syracuse has won its only road game against Cincinnati.

The Bearcats are led by sophomore guard Deonta Vaughn (6-1, 195), the lone player to average double figures in the scoring column. Vaughn has led the Bearcats in scoring in 10 of 14 games this year and comes into Wednesday's contest averaging 15.9 points per game. Vaughn also leads the team with 59 assists and adds 3.5 rebounds per contest, and is the team's most prolific three point shooter. For the year, he's knocked down 38 triples at a clip of 41.8% and hits on 46% of his field goals overall.

The sophomore is joined in the starting five by a quartet of seniors. John Williamson (6-6, 225) and Adam Hrycaniuk (6-10, 230) provide the size down low, while Marvin Gentry (6-3, 180) and Jamual Warren (6-2, 195) join Vaughn as part of a three guard set.

Williamson is the team's second leading scorer with an average of 9.7 points per game and averages a team best 6.4 boards per contest. He shoots 45.5% from the field but struggles at the line, knocking down only 54.7% of his freebies. So far this season he's posted highs of 13 points (against Louisville) and 13 boards (versus Belmont).

Hrycaniuk also comes in at just under the double digit scoring mark with an average of 9.6 points per outing. Like Williamson, he shoots 45.5% from the field but is a strong free throw shooter, knocking down 80.4% of his attempts. With the tendency to foul on the interior for the Orange, he's a threat to convert a couple of three point plays if the Orange are not careful. He's led the Bearcats in scoring twice this year, with a season high of 16 points coming in the loss to UAB.

Despite his height, Hrycaniuk is really not much of a presence on the interior. He's averaging 5.4 boards per game with a high of nine against Xavier, and has blocked only one shot all season, hardly a stat you'd like to see from your 6-10 big man. As you might imagine from a stat line like that, the Polish import does occasionally like to step out beyond the arc and let fly, having knocked down 4-of-11 attempts (36.4%) this season.

Warren enters the game with the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team, having handed out 31 assists against just 13 turnovers in the eight games he's played. He's started seven of those eight games and averages 5.4 points and 3.9 boards per game, but has struggled shooting the ball in all facets of the game. For the year he's hitting 36.5% from the field and has knocked down only 3-of-11 attempts (27.3%) from deep, and has made just 2-of-6 free throws. Still, he is a quick and strong guard who will likely be matched up with Jonny Flynn defensively, and has the strength and speed to potentially bother the freshman phenom.

Gentry is the team's fourth leading scorer, averaging 7.5 points per game. He's got the best three point percentage on the team, knocking down a total of 18 long balls at a 42.9% clip. He's also the team's best free throw shooter, having made 85.7% of his attempts.

Gentry is very much a perimeter oriented player, having both made and attempted more shots from outside the arc than from inside, and his field goal percentage is only slightly better (43.7%) than his three point percentage. This is one of those players that the Orange will have to be aware of on skip passes and kick outs, and the wing players in the zone will have do a good job closing out without fouling on the jumper (are you listening Kristof?)

Some of the key players who will come off the bench for the Bearcats include senior Marcus Sikes (6-8, 230), as well as freshmen Anthony "Biggie" McClain (6-11, 245), Rashad Bishop (6-6, 220), and Larry Davis (6-3, 180).

Sikes averages just 3.2 points per game this year and has had a dismal time shooting the ball, hitting only 32% of his field goal attempts and 21.2% of his threes. However, if the name sounds familiar to Syracuse fans there is a good reason. Last season Sikes had a career day against the Orange, nailing 8-of-12 triples on his way to 24 points in the one point Syracuse victory, in which the 'Cuse surrendered a 19 point advantage.

McClain averages less than 10 minutes per game but is by far the team's leading shot blocker, having swatted away 16 attempts this season. He is a long and athletic player who runs the floor surprisingly well. He has not been much of a scoring threat this season, shooting 48.6% from the field and averaging just 3.1 points per game, but the big man did reach double figures with 10 points against Miami (Ohio). McClain got the most playing time of his young career in the upset over Louisville and fared surprisingly well, collecting nine boards and scoring four points in 25 minutes of action.

Bishop has turned out to be a solid scorer off the bench, averaging 5.6 points per game to go along with 3.5 rebounds. He also has a team leading 13 steals, though it's only a matter of time before Warren overtakes him in that category. He is a slashing type player but can step outside to hit the occasional three, having knocked down 11-of-30 attempts (36.7%) this season. He has hit for double figures three times this scoring, twice reaching his career high of 12 points.

Davis is one of only six players to have appeared in all 14 Bearcat games this season, averaging 4.6 points per game and shooting 30.3% from long range. The Houston native entered college with a reputation as a shooter, but so far hasn't really settled in as his playing time has fluctuated. He has twice reached double figures in the scoring column, with a career high 15 points coming against USC Upstate. In just 11 minutes against Xavier he showed flashes of why he had a strong reputation as a shooter in high school, knocking down 3-of-5 triples on his way to nine points.

Overall this season has been a tough one for Cincinnati and second year coach Mick Cronin. Opponents have outscored the Bearcats 67.1-to-64.5 and limited them to just 41.8% shooting as a team. The Bearcats have been okay from deep, making just over a third of their attempts, but like the Orange struggle a bit from the free throw line (66.8%). They have held a rebounding advantage over opponents this season (35.1-to-33.1), and even managed to out-board Memphis in their 10 point loss. Ball handling has been an issue for the whole team, having turned the ball over 200 times while registering only 188 assists.

Syracuse would seemingly have the advantage in all facets of this game except for depth, though the talent on the SU roster should be able to more than make up for the few extra bodies that Cincinnati can throw into the game. One potential advantage for the Bearcats might be a bit more size coming off the bench, with three of their top reserves all coming in at least 6-6 and 220. If Arinze Onuaku and Donte' Greene can't avoid foul trouble, the Orange might give up a bit more than they'd like on the interior.

Still, this is a tale of two very opposite teams. The Bearcats are laden with seniors and experience, but a total lack of scoring prowess. The Orange, meanwhile, are not only one of the youngest and most inexperienced teams in the nation, but also one of the most explosive offensively.

Inexperience has been an Achilles heal for the Orange this season, despite all of the offensive potency on display, and it could be again against a much more veteran Cincinnati team playing at home, where it has picked up five of its six victories this year. To get an idea of just how inexperienced this Orange team is in comparison, here's a quick recap of what the players for each side contributed in last season's lone meeting:

Cincinnati – 5 players, 157 minutes, 13 three pointers, 28 rebounds, 12 assists, 11 steals, 64 total points.

Syracuse – 1 player, 4 minutes, 2 rebounds, 2 points.

Of course, the only Syracuse player currently on the active roster who got any time in last season's game is Paul Harris, who played virtually no role in the outcome.

Still, the Orange enter the game on a roll, having won 8 of their last 9 and six straight, and are putting up monster numbers across the board. With 85.9 points and 41.1 rebounds coming from such a youth oriented team, the most talented team on the floor will clearly be the Syracuse Orange.

If the Orange continue to build on what they've been doing well, particularly crashing the defensive boards in order to limit second and third chances, taking better care of the ball and getting sharper ball movement offensively, and quickly turning defense to offense with lots of fast break opportunities, they should be able to run the Bearcats out of their own gym.

Rebounding should not be much of an issue, as Cincinnati no longer has a player like Cedric McGowan to keep offensive sets alive with tips and boards leading to multiple attempts. With Scoop Jardine continuing to grow more comfortable at the Division 1 level and with Flynn continuing to play his steady and mature floor game, ball control should also not be much of a problem. It should be noted that the Orange have turned the ball over 12 or fewer times in each of their last three games.

Finally, the Orange defense has gotten much more active as the young players start to figure out Jimmy B's 2-3 zone and learn their roles within it, and they have been getting much better at disrupting passing lanes and getting to shooters to limit the kind of wide open looks that Rhode Island and UMass got earlier in the season.

The way that Cincinnati plays and the fact that it's only the second true road game of the year (discounting neutral site games) for a young Syracuse team, the game has the potential to sport its share of ugly stretches. Still, the talent gap just looks too wide at this point for the Orange to fall, and the young guys just keep getting better and more mature with each passing game. Look for a Syracuse victory and a margin of 8-to-12 points.


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