Jim Boeheim hopes this won't snowball, as the Orange enter one of the most grueling stretches of games in recent memory. Syracuse will face eight ranked opponents in the next five weeks. That number is more than many teams will face in an entire season. But for the ‘Cuse, that's just the harsh reality of the Big East conference.
And this one will be no cakewalk. Notre Dame comes into this game very angry and hungry. The Irish lost in overtime at Freedom Hall earlier this week. Mike Brey's squad boasts the returning Big East Player of the Year in Luke Harangody. Besides having Harangody, the Irish also have a plethora of experience with four seniors and three juniors amongst their top eight scorers. Notre Dame will present a test for SU's three point field goal percentage defense. Georgetown gashed them on Wednesday night, but Notre Dame is a far more prolific team, hitting on over 41% of its shots from distance.
Not only will Kyle McAlarney stretch the defense, but Tory Jackson and Ryan Ayers are two other guards that shoot over forty percent from downtown. Notre Dame has an inside-outside presence that will test the Orange to the max. To top that off, Notre Dame is certainly motivated for this matchup. I'm sure they've heard all the recent media hype about the Orange and are a bit peeved by it. After all this is an Irish team that hasn't played too badly itself, but it is one that needs a win to stay near the top of the conference standings.
This matchup will be another classic in the series. Let's hope the Dome is filled with thirty thousand overly-exuberant Orange fans ready to cheer the ‘Cuse to a statement win.
Six Keys To The Game / Pressing Questions
-Stop Ryan Ayers. He averages over eleven points per game and is a deadly weapon from three that will likely find himself being guarded by Paul Harris for a fair share of the game (if SU reverts to mostly man). However, in Notre Dame's four losses, Ayers is just 9 of 28 from the floor, averaging 6.5 points per game. The simple message: while McAlarney may light us up once again, he might not be the most crucial Irish player to slow down on Saturday.
-Notre Dame is likely the most disciplined team we'll see all season. This is an Irish team averaging nearly two assists for every turnover, ranking them in the upper echelon of the NCAA thus far. And it's not like they have one point guard with a ridiculous assist-to-turnover ratio. Every single player on the Irish has a ratio that is greater than one. The Irish like to shoot from behind the arc, but they also maximize their possessions by not turning the ball over (just 9.2 per game). Can SU speed the game up and force turnovers? Also, can Jonny Flynn distribute the ball effectively? SU might be best served by slowing the game down and in order to do that, the team needs to cut down on the errant passes that we saw in such prevalence last game.
-SU absolutely needs a great start to the game. There's nothing more deflating than 30,000+ silent fans in the Loudhouse. This will be a boxing match that goes all twelve rounds and SU must land the first punch and then hang on for dear life.
-Keeping it close on the boards. Sure, the Irish have Harangody (aka the human double-double) but that's not all. The Irish have three other players averaging more than four boards. Mike Brey's team pulls down over forty a game and usually dominates the board (the UNC game notwithstanding). SU, meanwhile, has struggled mightily on the boards, partially due to its propensity to employ the 2-3 zone. If SU switches to a predominant man defense to guard the three, hopefully that will be the jump start the tema needs on the glass.
-How does Arinze Onuaku respond from his subpar game against the Hoyas? He'll be critical against Luke Harangody? How does Paul Harris play, still nursing that finger injury? If he can get double-digit boards, SU's chances at a win will improve greatly. How does Andy Rautins respond from that ugly collision on Wednesday night? He could serve as a counterpunch to McAlarney, as I'm sure we won't forget his recent efforts in the Carrier Dome (nine threes in a game, anyone?)
-This could be one of those games where we need a contribution from a Kristof or Kris. The presence of Rick Jackson in this game will also be key. While he seemed to have his way around the basket in the last game, some of it seemed to be a bit more luck than anything else. Rick needs to realize that he's not the focal point of the offense and he needs to take his looks as they come in the flow of the offense, even if Syracuse is trailing. While he put up an impressive stat line (minus the free throws) against the Hoyas, I was still nervous every time he had the ball down there. Whether it's because he hasn't quite proven himself or that his fundamentals are still a bit lacking, I don't know. But Rick might serve SU better tomorrow by going into ‘beast mode' on the glass. Hopefully, the challenge of Luke Harangody will be enough to motivate SU's big men.
Prediction: Syracuse 77, Notre Dame 76. The game comes down to the final minute and Jonny Flynn adds another chapter to his storied lore at SU.