‘Cuse – Nova Preview

Both teams ride into this matchup with at least a bit of momentum, knowing that this matchup could go a long way towards determining order in the Big East final standings and who gets a first-round bye at Madison Square Garden. SU and Villanova played a pair of entertaining games last year in the regular season and there should be no reason to expect anything else in this one.

Nova checks in at number sixteen in the polls having recently unseated Pittsburgh at home and most recently, nipping Providence on the road Wednesday night.  The 2008-09 edition of the Wildcats seems to be eerily similar to recent ones.  Coached by the always impeccably dressed Jay Wright, Villanova will use a smaller lineup that relies on solid guard play.  Somewhat similar to Marquette in that aspect, Nova will still hold their own on the boards most of the time.

Expect the ‘Cats to run their offense around explosive guard Scottie Reynolds.  He dropped 31 on the Friars; after coming in as a highly touted prospect, he seemed to regress a bit last year, but has resumed his habit of scoring with alacrity this season.  However, with Jonny Flynn likely getting a good share of the defensive duties on Reynolds, it might be the ‘big men' of Nova that need to be shut down.  Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark, two senior forwards, always seem to play a couple of inches taller on the boards with their long wingspans.

Speaking of the boards, they will be a key for the game tomorrow.  With the progression of Rick Jackson this season, SU may be able to rest Arinze Onuaku more and work with a smaller lineup, as A.O. will be very important in next week's games against Connecticut and Georgetown, both of whom trot out sizably larger lineups than Nova. 

Expect both coaches to feel out a smaller lineup and stick with it, making for a high-tempo game, something that usually favors SU.  In this case though, that may not be the case.  Jay Wright's squad has a plethora of physical guards and athletic wings that can run the floor with any team in the country.  If SU can establish the low post early with Onuaku and Jackson, it could be a long day for Nova.  Jim Boeheim hopes that's the case, as the road only gets tougher from here.  A date in Storrs with the nation's top-ranked team looms for the ‘Cuse.

Six Keys To The Game / Pressing Questions

  • Simply put, the number one concern for the ‘Cuse right now is the health of Arinze Onuaku's knee.  The big man had to redshirt a season already due to knee problems and this injury, first suffered in the Louisville game has nagged him ever since.  At 270 pounds (give or take a few either way), Onuaku is a hefty presence in the low post who has led the nation in field goal percentage for much of the season and caused Dick Vitale to endlessly fawn over him in a couple of November games with his sheer dominance in the post.  As the big man's free throw troubles have been exposed this season, he seems to have taken a couple of steps back though.  Who knows, maybe the saying ‘ninety percent of the game is mental' applies for Arinze.  One thing we can all agree on is that A.O. needs to get healthy soon (eight day break after Georgetown game perhaps); otherwise, Jim Boeheim may have to go back to the drawing board.
  • SU's free throw shooting has seemed to improve a bit as Onuaku has coincidentally become a lesser part of the offense.  The Orange knocked down thirteen of seventeen in Wednesday's win over the Mountaineers, but Villanova is the wrong team to get into a free throw shooting battle with.  The ‘Cats put the ‘free' in free throw, shooting nearly 75% from the stripe, one of the top marks in the nation.  To top it off, they've made 399 free throws in 22 games, which if I've done the math right comes out to somewhere right around eighteen made free throws per game, another very impressive number.  In terms of percentages though, if SU needs to foul late, the two to go after are Antonio Pena (64%) and Shane Clark (56%).
  • In order to win, SU will need to bump up their assist-to-turnover ratio.  They finished with fifteen of each Wednesday and PG Jonny Flynn tallied just one assist in the last thirty minutes of the game.  Flynn and Andy Rautins will need to work in tandem finding open guys, as it appears Eric Devendorf has finally summoned his former self…the slashing daredevil that's willing to absorb all kinds of contact if it means he gets to the rim.  I'd like to see Flynn look to play more of a true point guard role in this game.  His teammates, Paul Harris and Devendorf, both put up solid shooting performances against West Virginia and if Flynn can find them along with Rautins, SU will be hard to stop.  No matter how many scoring options SU has though, it seems to nearly always perform better when Rautins is on.  The Orange was undefeated when the local sharpshooter scored in double digits, up until a month ago.  He needs to get his stroke back again, as it will stretch that Nova D like nothing else can.
  • Against teams that are currently ranked, Villanova is just 1-4 (17-0 against everyone else).  Syracuse, meanwhile, is 2-3 against currently ranked teams (Florida's loss to Tennessee knocked them out of the rankings momentarily).  While it seems a while ago, SU won in the Fed Ex Forum over Memphis a month and a half ago without Eric Devendorf and a questionable Jonny Flynn.  The team proved they could win on the road in 2008.  Once the calendar flipped, things haven't been quite as rosy.  So which streak will break?  Will it be SU getting a huge road win (you can't ever overestimate the importance of those) or will it be Villanova finally picking up another win over a ranked team?
  • The matchup I'll be watching is Dante Cunningham versus Do-it-all-Paul.  Harris got back on the right track, with another workman-like double double.  Not to be discounted, Cunningham has also recorded seven double doubles this season also.  He's scored in double digits in all but two games; however, he's one of the zebras' favorite targets…he's fouled out of three games this year and finished with three fouls in four more.  At 230 pounds, Cunningham is the main line of defense to the low post.  Getting him in foul trouble will be critical for SU.
  • In games decided by single digits, Nova is 4-4, while SU is 6-2 (with one of those losses being the Cleveland State game and the other being Providence when SU played essentially down two starters).  The moral of the story:  take SU if this one comes down to the wire.  That may run contrary to the free throw shooting numbers that each team exhibits, but maybe SU just has the special ‘something' at the end that is able to close games this season, so we won't have another ‘Pitt incident' like last season.  However you care to explain it, I'll take it…a team that finds a way to pull out the close games is one that can succeed in March, when it matters.

Prediction:  #20 Syracuse 82, #16 Villanova 78

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