Seton Hall is a dangerous team, far from the one that SU spanked by 24 in the Dome back in December to open conference play. The Pirates were without coach Bobby Gonzalez and one of their starters, John Garcia, for that game. With his players relatively healthy now, Gonzalez has guided his team to new heights as the season has wore on. The highlight was a 65-60 victory over then-#12 Georgetown.
The Hall went 7-5 over its last twelve conference games, partly due to an easier schedule but also due to growth and maturity. It racked up a five-game win streak spanning more than two weeks in January and February, but its most recent exploits may have been its best. Seton Hall toppled Cincinnati in overtime on the road, effectively ending the Bearcats' NCAA Tournament hopes while winning in Fifth Third Arena, one of the tougher places to play in the Big East.
The Pirates proved their mettle early in the season, defeating two likely tournament teams in USC and Virginia Tech. And when one delves deep into Seton Hall's résumé, he'll see they aren't that far from a tourney team themselves. Seton Hall currently has a 17-14 record, but went a measly 1-3 in the four games forward John Garcia missed due to injury earlier this year. If you take change two of those losses (both by less than six points) to wins, Seton Hall would be 19-12 with an outside chance of punching a ticket to dance with an upset win over SU.
Nevertheless, injuries are a part of the game and it wouldn't serve us well to play the ‘what if' game. Just realize this Seton Hall team won't be a pushover.
But if Syracuse can keep playing the way it did during a four-game winning streak to close conference play, this game should be a mere formality. However, just like when SU opened conference play 4-0, it would be foolish to get expectations too high. The team should win this game, but will have a tough time against UConn tomorrow should it win tonight (not to say SU can't win…it certainly is capable).
Last time SU won four in a row in Big East play (to start this season), they promptly took to the road and were embarrassed by rival Georgetown. This started a 3-7 funk that tried SU players' and fans' patience alike. Now, the Orange has amassed another impressive win streak, this one including an overtime win at Marquette. And unlike the first four-game win streak, which consisted solely of wins over Big East bottom feeders, this most previous one also contained three straight wins of twenty points or more, a feat SU had never accomplished in all its years in the Big East.
So perhaps the tides have turned SU's way for good. Or maybe Johnny Flynn & Co. are due for a letdown. One thing is certain though, these next few days are going to reveal everything about the 2008-09 Syracuse men's basketball team, for better or worse.
Six Keys To The Game / Pressing Questions
-The Hall's leading scorer is sophomore Jeremy Hazell. He checks in averaging 22.5 points per game, good enough for second in the Big East. He's taken nearly thirty percent of his team's shots this season (531 of 1,874) and has an eerily similar rate of production, scoring more than 22 of his team's 74 points per game. He is also in triple digits in the three pointers made category, having swished home an even one hundred so far this season. However, that gaudy number comes on 275 attempts. To make a long story short, more than half of Hazell's shots come from distance, which isn't necessarily a good thing. He averages more than eight 3 point attempts per game and his team is just 3-9 when he shoots ten or more times from downtown.
-I have an apology to make. I've been misquoting the stat concerning Arinze Onuaku just a bit. Now that I've clarified it once and for all, here it is: The Orange is 15-0 when A.O. scores twelve or more points and an even .500 at 8-8 when he does not. He has only done this three times in the past fourteen games, however, which along with some other factors might explain SU's brutal stretch in the middle of conference play. So A.O., if you're reading this, get ready to step your game up because your team is going to need you on Thursday and Friday if it makes it that far.
-Seton Hall isn't a team that shoots the ball very well, especially when compared to Syracuse, who shoots it at nearly a fifty percent clip (.495, to be exact). That's why it's odd to see the Pirates averaging just 33 rebounds per game, while SU averages just under 39 per contest.
-Another interesting stat for SU. We know the team tends to do better when Andy Rautins scores in double figures. However, there's a big difference in how a player can get ten points. It can be done efficiently (on 4-for-5 shooting) or in a manner that's a bit more destructive to the team effort (taking bad shots repeatedly in an effort break out of a funk). As for Rautins, his team is 9-0 when he shoots 50% or better from the floor this season. In all but one of those games, Rautins finished in double digits. Andy is also notorious for taking his fair share of threes (and then some). He's taken ten or more in a game six times this season. The first three games he did this, SU coasted to wins over Coppin State, Seton Hall and DePaul. The next three times, the ‘Cuse wasn't so lucky though. It lost to Pitt and Villanova (twice). Moral of the story: Andy can get away with forcing his shot against mediocre teams, but SU needs to be as efficient as possible on offense against the Big East's upper echelon teams if it wants to pull the upset.
-Johnny Flynn is averaging 36.1 minutes per game this season, up more than a half a minute from last year. This was the same Flynn who seemed to wear down during the stretch run a bit last season. And SU has played more games this year. So why hasn't there been talk of Flynn wearing down? Maybe he's physically stronger and more prepared for the college game in his sophomore year, or maybe he's due for a slight dip in production.
-When it comes down to it, SU is the superior team. It has more talent, more depth and better coaching. If SU sticks to its fundamentals (playing solid defense, rebounding, taking care of the ball and shooting the ball well), it should be fine tonight. It's going to be difficult for Seton Hall to win and if SU can shoot better than 50% from the floor, win the rebounding battle and keep the turnover total to less than a dozen, it's pretty much a virtual lock for a quarterfinal date with the Huskies.
Prediction: #20 Syracuse 82, Seton Hall 68