However, there's reason to believe this encounter could be much different than the first one between the two teams back in February. For starters, that game took place on the road in Storrs; this one will be at Madison Square Garden in the Big East quarterfinals on a neutral floor. To top that off, SU has won its last three meetings with Jim Calhoun's Huskies in the conference tournament, including a stunner in 2006. And this is a Connecticut squad that has struggled mightily in postseason play recently. It went 0-2 last season, falling to West Virginia and San Diego in its first game of the Big East and NCAA tournaments (both times as a four seed, WVU was a 5 and USD a 13).
And while the Huskies' recent track record indicates we could be in for a doozy of a game, so do the underlying statistics from the teams' February encounter. While UConn won by fourteen, much of this was predicated on a late second half run to break the game open. This was a neck-and-neck game at halftime and one that, truthfully, SU should have been leading by at least five points. Turnovers, sloppy play and careless offensive possessions plagued both teams, but while SU comes in riding a five game winning streak (shooting more than 56% from the floor during the streak), UConn enters this one having been physically dismantled by the Pittsburgh Panthers for a second time this season.
The quirky laws of momentum say this matchup should favor SU, but one thing is for certain: it will be a slugfest at MSG tonight, an all-out dogfight as both teams try to seize momentum (and better seeding) heading into the Big Dance. Expect SU to try to run up and down the floor a lot tonight, as it has proven to be nearly unstoppable in the transition game. Combine that with a team that's about as rested as you could ask for after a fairly lopsided victory over Seton Hall just last night, and the elements for an upset are brewing, frothing and bubbling just below the surface.
The Orange faithful have waited all year for a statement win over a solid team, and while the road win over Marquette provided that in some ways, SU fans and players alike know the best may still be on the horizon. SU went 0-5 against the Big East's top four teams this season, with only one of those games being decided by single digits. A chance to rise up a full seed line (if not more) beckons tonight if SU can add this notch to its belt; coupled with its wins over Memphis, Kansas and Marquette (amongst others), the ‘Cuse could end the season with a jam-packed résumé, one that would be hard to deny a top-four seed (and some location protection under the new tournament rules), especially if this wild and wacky Championship Week continues to be chock full of upsets.
So sit down, fasten your seat belts and take a deep breath; this is where the intensity revs up again for SU basketball. It's games like tonight that make us sit back and realize the thrills and joys of being a Syracuse fan.
Six Keys To The Game / Pressing Questions:
- Some trends to consider that might be pertinent to this game…SU is 7-2 this season when playing on two days of rest or less this season. The ‘Cuse started out the season rough in this department, struggling to get wins over Richmond, Cornell and Coppin State, while dropping one to Cornell. However, the team has picked it up as of late, shellacking St. John's and Cincinnati. Perhaps fatigue won't loom as large in this one as some think it might. Also, SU remains unbeaten when Arinze Onuaku scores twelve or more points (16-0) and when Andy Rautins shoots fifty percent or better from the field (10-0). Both players were able to accomplish those feats last night and SU coasted by Seton Hall.
- It's guys like Paul Harris and Kristof Ongenaet that will have to play solidly for SU to pull the upset tonight. And as for the former, you'd expect the juices to be flowing a bit more with him. Despite having his minutes decrease from more than 36 per game last year to just a shade over 30 this year, Paul Harris has struggled down the stretch, finishing with just four points in last night's contest. Whether it's constantly being in Coach Boeheim's doghouse or other personal issues, Do-it-all-Paul seems to have been lacking focus and intensity lately. While he showed up in many ways during the last home game of the season against Rutgers, he was virtually non-existent last night. And for SU to succeed, Paul has to as well. SU is 14-2 when Paul makes fifty percent of his shots or more. But when Paul misses his first few looks of the night, watch out. That's a sign things won't be going well for the ‘Cuse. Paul also has seen a dramatic decrease in free throw attempts this season. After attempting nearly 250 last year (approximately 7 per game), he's only taken 141 this year (less than 5 per game). Harris, like all SU players will need to attack the rim tonight to get some UConn players into foul trouble.
- Speaking of foul trouble, this is a UConn team that now runs just seven deep pretty much with the loss of Jerome Dyson for the season. And now, aside from point guard A.J. Price, the Huskies lack a consistent shooter to go to in the clutch. If SU's zone defense maintains the same intensity it has had during this recent hot spurt, UConn could get frustrated and begin to force shots from the perimeter.
- SU won't win this game without maximizing its offensive possessions (> 1.3 points per shot) and staying close on the boards (a margin within eight would be acceptable). The ‘Cuse also needs to limit UConn's offensive rebounding and second chance opportunities. Marquette and Seton Hall got more than their fair share in the past two games; with the Huskies' big bruisers, Thabeet and Jeff Adrien, the Orange will pay dearly if it makes the same mistake tonight.
- Motivation always plays a key factor in every game. You have to wonder who has more motivation for this one. Is it UConn, seeking to avenge its recent postseason disappointments and get back on the right track for this year's tourney or is it SU, who's looking for a measure of payback and a chance to raise its stock considerably in the eyes of the Selection Committee?
- Whoever wins the battle between Johnny Flynn and A.J. Price at the point guard spot will likely lead his team to victory. If there's one matchup I'm looking at on the floor tonight, it's that one. Flynn has seemingly disappeared in some big moments, while Price just always seems to be in the right place at the right time, the steady hand that rocks the cradle and makes everything tick for the Huskies.
Prediction: #20 Syracuse 74, #3 Connecticut 71