Orange – Mountaineers Preview

You can throw all the clichés on this game that you want to. It is indeed a must-win game for the ‘Cuse. It's one that could very well change the course of the entire season, but this is a game where SU has history on its side. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins has never beaten Syracuse in the Dome, though he did go 2-0 there in the NCAA tournament over a decade ago.

But for tonight's game, throw history out the window.  This is going to be a good, old-fashioned Big East battle where two scrappy and hungry teams lay it all on the line.  That's because West Virginia, besides being coached by Huggins (think defensive intensity), enters this game with a ‘must-win' mentality.  The Mountaineers are 15-6 on the season, but already have four losses in conference play, albeit all to top ten teams.

In this matchup, SU will have an advantage with size, regardless of whether or not center Arinze Onuaku is patrolling the paint for the ‘Cuse tonight.  WVU lacks a true low-post presence, with their tallest player receiving regular playing time being Devin Ebanks, a 6'9" wing player.  Expect SU to capitalize on this advantage by sending the slumping Paul Harris down into the low post more often.

While West Virginia is a smaller team (and one lacking depth after Joe Mazzulla was declared out for the rest of the season due to injury), it can play some shutdown defense.  The ‘Eers surrender just a tad over sixty points per game in Big East play.  They are a team filled with athletic wing players that present many matchup problems, due to their excellent marksmanship from downtown.

For what it's worth, West Virginia obviously has quite a few opponents in common with the Orange this season.  West Virgina topped Cleveland State 53-43 in a hard-fought game and also routed Seton Hall 92-66.  They also nipped South Florida at home, and fared a little better than SU against Big East heavyweights Louisville and Pittsburgh, but still came up short in both games.  West Virginia also sliced up the Ohio State matchup zone in Columbus a few days after Christmas, rolling 76-48 over the Buckeyes.  Bob Huggins, being a veteran coach, has seen his share of zones before and his team didn't appear to have any problems with it last year in Morgantown as they coasted to an easy twenty point victory.

Six Keys To The Game/Pressing Questions

·         Getting Paul Harris back on track.  Paul has struggled to put the points up lately, not that he hasn't been efficient with the ball.  He just hasn't been taking many shots at all and even came off the bench for the Providence game (whether it was Jimmy B. seeking a Devo-like spark off the bench or for other reasons, who knows).  Whether or not SU's recent struggles go hand-in-hand with Do-it-all Paulie's, Harris needs to get more involved with the offense, as he'll be a key down the stretch.

·         How well does SU defend the three ball?  We've been over this time and time again, but one of the problems in the 2-3 zone is that it gives up some open shots from distance?  After seventeen games this season (through the Rutgers game), SU ranked third in the country at three point field goal percentage defense, hovering around 26%.  In SU's last five games, they've given up nearly half as many three point makes as they did in the first seventeen.  And West Virginia has the shooters to capitalize on this:  Da'Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff.  Butler is connecting on over fifty percent of his three pointers in Big East play, while Ruoff lit up the Orange defense like a Christmas tree last year.  This season, Ruoff has a marked difference in his percentages, however.  He shoots less than thirty percent from distance on the road.

·         How do WVU's freshman fare in this hostile environment?  Wing man Devin Ebanks has matured nicely as a first year player in the Big East.  In fact, here's a quirky stat for you:  when Ebanks grabs seven or more rebounds in a game, WVU is 8-1.  When he grabs six or less, the Mountaineers are just 7-5.  Meanwhile, WVU also has Kevin Jones, a 230 lb. bruiser from New York.  Many ‘Cuse fans have been left wondering whether Jim Boeheim should've taken him over Kris Joseph or Mookie Jones, especially with Mookie on the shelf for the rest of the year.

·         This game will likely come down to the SU defense.  It has struggled mightily lately, but if Jonny Flynn & Co. are able to ‘pick up the defensive intensity again', they'll have a good chance of winning tonight.  West Virginia is just 3-6 on the season when it doesn't score seventy points.

·         Who is able to win the battle of the boards?  SU has been getting killed by second-chance points, but even without Arinze Onuaku, should be able to control the boards.  However, WVU is a scrappy team with some strong guards that aren't afraid to mix it up to get rebounds.

·         Does Andy Rautins make a triumphant return to the starting lineup?  The homegrown hero is expected to be back, after missing the Providence game.  However, that may not be enough.  Expect SU to rely heavily on Rautins' passing and his ability to stretch the defense.  Andy has excelled at home this season, raining threes on both Coppin State and Seton Hall.  If he (and the rest of the team) can shoot over fifty percent from the floor, they should be able to pull this one out at home.

Prediction:  #20 Syracuse 77, West Virginia 72 

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