The Orange enter this contest riding one of its best starts to a season in recent memory. A team that seems to be incredibly balanced and has a bit of everything (shooting, size, quickness, defense), SU is now being bandied about by college basketball pundits as a dark horse candidate to win the conference. If that's to be the case, SU can't afford any slipups on the road against a team like Rutgers, one that is winless in Big East play.
While Rutgers has dropped its first three contests in the conference, they all came against ranked opponents. In fact, tonight's game will mark the fifth straight that the Scarlet Knights have played against a ranked foe. They played top-ranked Pittsburgh dead even for thirty minutes at home before fading down the stretch.
Rutgers features some size on the blocks, along with big, athletic guards that can both penetrate and shoot. Coach Fred Hill convinced Mike Rosario to stay in-state and the McDonald's All-American has paid early dividends, leading the team in scoring at over seventeen points per game. While Rosario has put up gaudy numbers so far, he has done so because he is the focal point of the offense. He has taken nearly thirty percent of his team's shots this season (231 of 834). He also is shooting just a couple of ticks over forty percent from the floor.
Like Rosario, the Rutgers team is one that doesn't shoot the ball particularly well (43% from the floor, 30% from downtown), but it is one that uses penetration and the low post to get to the charity stripe. Rutgers averages nearly 23 free throw attempts per game.
The key to this game will be how Rosario and Rutgers adapts to the patented 2-3 zone defense that Jim Boeheim employs. While it tends to give up more open looks from downtown, the Orange actually rank third in the country in three point field goal percentage defense at 26.7%. That number shrinks to below 23 percent when you look at SU's last six games, all victories. Expect a young Rutgers team to struggle against this zone and force some shots.
While the odds don't favor Rutgers, they certainly have a chance. They've already played the Panthers close and we all saw how SU struggled to play forty good minutes the last time they hit the road in the Big East. The fact of the matter is, every conference game is a war and any of those a team can win in hostile territory will go a long way towards where it will finish in the final standings. Because of this discrepancy in home versus away in conference play and Rutgers' superiority at the free throw line (Rosario leads the Big East at nearly ninety percent, while his teammates may just play ‘Hack-a-Onuaku' all night), Rutgers will be a good measuring stick for SU.
Six Keys To The Game/Questions To Ponder:
-Can Andy Rautins keep up his hot shooting? Leo's son has been tearing the nets down as of late, regardless of what gym he's playing in. But it's not just his sweet stroke that makes Rautins so dangerous. It's the six assists he added to his seventeen points on Wednesday night. Rautins seems to function as a second point guard at times when Jonny Flynn is busy penetrating. He knows the intricacies of the offense and is a very unselfish player. For this reason, opponents can't double him; otherwise, he'll kick it to the open man.
-Do we finally see a game where SU is challenged in the low post? If not tonight, it'll most likely happened next week when A.O. & Co. wage war with Greg Monroe and Luke Harangody. With Arinze Onuaku, Rick Jackson and even Paul Harris, the Orange has had its way down on the blocks so far in the Big East. Rutgers has a talented frosh in Gregory Echenique to pair with Hamady N'Diaye. Together, those two average more than six blocks per game and outside of UConn's Hasheem Thabeet, may be two of the Big East's top shot blockers. They are lanky but many not have the strength to bang with Onuaku and Jackson for forty minutes.
-Rutgers averages just eleven assists versus more than fifteen turnovers per contest. If that trend continues and Fred Hill's squad doesn't have more dimes than oopsies, there won't be an upset occurring tonight.
-How will Kris Joseph rebound from Wednesday's outing? The freshman from Montreal put up an 0fer, missing all three shots he took. He'll likely be an integral part off the bench as conference play continues and needs to improve his midrange game.
-SU has superior athleticism and quickness. For this reason, they'll want to push the ball all night, while Rutgers (averaging just 66 points per game) would be content with a halfcourt game. With Rutgers just 1-5 on the season when they give up over seventy points, the Orange should be fine if they shoot the ball decently and reach seventy points.
-The Orange has truly played the bottom feeders of the conference so far. With a win tonight, SU would start off conference play 4-0 for the first time in four years, when they started with seven consecutive victories. However, these four wins would have come over four of the five teams in the conference that are still winless in conference play.
Prediction: #9/11 Syracuse 79, Rutgers 70