SU looks to make memories tonight when it hosts a Rutgers squad that it earlier dismantled on the road. Tonight will be the final game in the Loudhouse for forward Kristof Ongenaet, as well as Justin Thomas and Jake Presutti. Expect the Belgian flags to out in full force and an appreciative crowd to be on hand, giving SU all the emotional boost it needs to win this game. Not only that but speculation has run rampant that this could be SU fans' last chance to see #10, 11 and 23 on Jim Boeheim Court.
In terms of statistics, this should be a game that SU should cruise in regardless of whether or not it's Senior Night. The Orange own a 20-1 mark in home games with the Scarlet Knights. SU hasn't lost at home to them in the Carrier Dome, with its last loss coming over thirty years ago.
And earlier this season, SU allowed Rutgers to hang around at the RAC for only a half before Coach Boeheim's team put the hammer down, highlighted by an emphatic Johnny Flynn dunk over Mike Rosario. However, this is the Big East and nothing ever comes easy. A Rutgers squad that has admittedly looked at this game as one it could possibly steal won't just come into the Carrier Dome and roll over. While they have just one win in conference play, Rutgers has (as coach Fred Hill puts it) "learned how to be competitive, but still needs to learn how to win."
Meanwhile, SU has been able to string together a couple of Big East wins, guaranteeing that it won't finish with a sub-.500 record in conference play. The one fear for SU is that it could get caught looking ahead to Saturday's regular season finale, an enticing matchup with a nationally-ranked Marquette squad that just lost guard Dominic James to a season-ending injury. If there's one thing SU's tourney résumé lacks, it is a signature road win over a conference opponent and the odds stack up pretty favorably for SU, having rocked the Golden Eagles to close last season.
However, I'd expect SU to put all the distractions behind it and take advantage of this soft spot in the Big East schedule. The team has stepped up and played some superb defense in the last two games, while winning by an average of 26.5 points in its last two games. And while these games were against two teams that are long shots for March Madness, a margin of victory like this is impressive in conference play, no matter who it comes against.
Expect more of the same tonight, as it appears SU has peaked at the perfect time. If it can get out to an early lead and get the crowd into it, this one could get out of hand early.
Six Keys To The Game / Pressing Questions
- Syracuse has yet to lose this season when center Arinze Onuaku has scored eleven or more points. Thus, it's not a stretch to say this team's success in March will rest on the broad shoulders and troublesome knees of Mr. Onuaku.
- Besides playing exceedingly well on defense Sunday, SU also turned the ball over just six times. While Cincinnati does struggle mightily on the road, they're still a bubble team that swept their season series with Georgetown. The six turnovers SU committed were less than half the team's season average of 15.2 per game. It's fundamental basketball, but if SU can play consistent defense, box out, handle the ball like it's a Faberge egg and take good shots in the rhythm of the offense, it's going to be an extremely tough out in the two upcoming tournaments.
- Rutgers freshman phenom Mike Rosario is a focal point of the offense, taking more than 25% of his team's field goal attempts. In Big East play, he's hoisted up 10 or more three point attempts on six separate occasions. Rutgers has lost all six of these games, though four of them were losses by single-digits. Rosario took a season-high fifteen shots from distance in this year's first meeting between SU and Rutgers. Yes, this against an SU team that (no matter what the critics say) does seem to fare pretty well in the three-point field goal percentage defense category (ask Cincy or Memphis about this).
- Can SU stay motivated? Its level of play has been off the charts in these past two games, although there are still things to nitpick about. However, if SU can win its last two games of the regular season, it's likely that the Orange will secure the sixth seed for the tourney at MSG. That could possibly set them up with a second-round game against Georgetown or Notre Dame (odd to say it now, but the round with twelve teams left will indeed be the second round of this year's tournament). If SU advanced to the quarterfinals, Paul Harris might get his wish, as a rematch with the Pittsburgh Panthers would be a distinct possibility. No matter how it shakes out, SU has the chance (and the ability) to make some noise before Selection Sunday.
- If I'm counting correctly, I see only three true road wins for the Scarlet Knights this season. The most impressive came at Rider, a team currently third in the MAAC with an outside chance to be one of the final 65 teams dancing. So, is there any reason to expect a close one in the Dome tonight?
- Well, if there's one way to succeed on the road, it's to take the crowd out of the game in the early going. During its torrid 16-1 start to the season, SU trailed at half four times (Richmond, Kansas, Virginia and Cornell). The ‘Cuse rallied to win all four games. Since the road game against Georgetown, SU is 0-6 when trailing at the half. So if Rutgers can come out and punch SU in the face early (figuratively speaking of course), Fred Hill's squad could have a shot at pulling the upset. But if I were a gambling man, I'd consider Russian Roulette before betting on the Scarlet Knights tonight.
Prediction: #25 Syracuse 88, Rutgers 69