The Orange dropped six of nine in that famous ‘gauntlet' we spent so much time canvassing just over a month ago. This game marks the end of it and SU has still yet to pick up a signature victory in conference play. Besides this game, SU's lone remaining opportunity will come on the road against Marquette in the final game of the regular season.
In order to triumph in this one, the Orange will need to slow down Villanova forward Dante Cunningham, who sliced and diced his way to a career-high 31 points in the two teams' first meeting this season. The Wildcats will feature a quick, up-tempo, guard-oriented offense in the Loudhouse today, which makes the eight day break SU had leading into this game even more vital. We can only hope that this time allowed Arinze Onuaku to get healthy again.
Once a huge weapon in the SU lineup in the early season when SU began 16-1, A.O. has been relegated to a supporting role as conference play has picked up steam. Combined with Rick Jackson, Onuaku comprises a fearsome 1-2 punch in the low post that should be able to control the paint and the boards.
While the injuries to SU's big man are physical, there are other members on the team that seem to have some mental obstacles to overcome. While Eric Devendorf has always been a cocky and brash player, the spate of turnovers that accompanies his fist pumps, critical free throws and three pointers seems to have intensified this season. Andy Rautins, meanwhile, seems to have struggled a bit in overcoming the mental hurdles associated with a return from a torn ACL (not that anyone could blame him). Nevertheless, Rautins has been involved in a number of scary situations this year and has always seemed a little gunshy on the floor in the next game or two following these. And if Andy's on, we all know what a weapon he can be. (And if you don't, go watch the Coppin State and Seton Hall tapes again).
The biggest enigma of them all though, is Paul Harris. The talented forward trapped in a guard's body (at least height-wise) came into the program with sky-high expectations, yet has seemed to regress this season, particularly lately in conference play. Harris finds himself in Coach Boeheim's doghouse more often than not. For Paulie, the game is truly ninety percent mental. He has the ability to crash the glass and when he grabs ten rebounds or more, it's usually a good indicator that SU is going to win the game. However, when Harris isn't able to hit his first few shots from the floor, he gets tentative on the offensive end and this seems to affect him on the defensive end and vice versa.
SU will need to have the entire team, not just the abovementioned players, put in stalwart performances today if it wants to earn a second straight win, payback style.
Six Keys To The Game/Pressing Questions:
- Both teams play just three teams multiple times this season, all in conference play due to the eighteen-game schedule. ‘Nova and Syracuse are 1-0 in payback games thus far, with Villanova toppling Marquette at home and SU hanging on at home to nip Georgetown just a week ago. SU needs to channel its pent-up energy today. The team knows just as well as you or I, that if it had played anywhere near a semblance of its normal game, it had a good chance to win down in Philly. However, the first meeting between these games saw some of the lowest points in the SU season, as the Wildcats rolled 102-85.
- SU is 3-0 when it has seven or more days off in between games this season, playing some of its most impressive basketball. Jim Boeheim's squad routed Long Beach State (possible tourney team), Seton Hall (Big East sleeper) and West Virginia (solid bubble team, at the least) in these three incidences so far this season.
- Who wins the battle of the benches and the battle of the trenches? I'm sure you saw the stat flash up approximately 10928 times during the game back on the 7th, but it bears repeating that the team that has won the last 9238 meetings has also won the battle of the boards. It'll be even more important today that ‘Nova, a fundamentally-sound team that shoots the ball well, doesn't get second chances. But just as important will be what each team gets from its bench. SU's has been depleted a bit, with Kris Joseph a bit banged-up and Mookie Jones opting for surgery and a redshirt (wisely, I might add). The team should be fresh, despite going to overtime with Georgetown, but I'd still expect to see a sizable portion of minutes for the Belgian Baller, Kristof Ongenaet. And I'm sure Kristof's still steaming over his ejection in the Georgetown game and might have a point to prove today (and perhaps a dunk or two to throw down in the process).
- SU is 9-3 when Rick Jackson scores double digits and is 6-1 when he grabs eight or more rebounds. While many thought this year could be a breakout year for RJ, I'm not sure if anyone predicted it in this capacity. He has blossomed into a solid low-post presence to fill the void when A.O. leaves (well, on the offensive end at least).
- Nova's best road win this season has come at Providence. Like SU, Jay Wright's squad is a team lacking that statement road win. The ‘Cats'll have as good a chance as ever today, considering they've won two of their past three in the Dome. In terms of who needs this one more though, I'd lean towards the ‘Cuse and with a big crowd cheering them on, while it's sure to be interesting, it's going to be as daunting a task as Villanova has faced all season.
- The charity stripe could run supreme in this game. The matchup should be physical and on paper, one would think Nova has a great advantage when it comes to the free throw situation. This might be true in the first 38 minutes of the game, but in the last two, SU isn't that shabby. If SU's trying to nurture a lead, Johnny Flynn (15 of 16 against Georgetown), Eric Devendorf (merely clutch here) and Paul Harris (a solid 70-75% from the line) are all viable options. However, if this one comes down to a big man at the stripe, be it Onuaku, Jackson or Ongenaet, I'd advise closing your eyes and hoping for the best.
Prediction: Syracuse 80, Villanova 78