Syracuse – West Virginia Preview

Both the Moutaineers and the Orange pulled off thrilling upsets over longtime rivals last night in the Big East quarterfinals. Now, the two teams (who were thought to be ‘on the bubble' possibly, as recently as two weeks ago) are playing solely for a better seed in the Big Dance.

Syracuse took the lone meeting between the two schools this season by a tidy 74-61 score.  The Orange were able to dominate that contest due to some terrific penetration from guards Johnny Flynn and Eric Devendorf.  Center Arinze Onuaku served mainly as a decoy in that game, recording just four points in his first game back from a troublesome knee injury that forced him to sit out a road loss to Providence.  A.O., however, was able to clog the lane and wreak havoc with the Mountaineers in his 18 minutes of play, despite not making his presence felt on the stat sheet.

The Orange came into that game nearly the polar opposite of what it is now; they entered needing a win badly to stop the bleeding (had lost four of last five) and came in with a full week's rest.  The ‘Cuse led the first meeting by as much as twenty points with over ten minutes to go.  Don't expect tonight's game to get out of hand either way though, as both teams will be playing their third game in as many nights.

Coach Jim Boeheim will likely rely nearly exclusively on his trademark 2-3 zone defense, in an attempt to keep his players as fresh as possible after last night's marathon victory over Connecticut in six overtimes.  This could present a problem, however.  West Virginia boasts 3 three point shooters checking in with shooting percentages above 36% in Alex Ruoff, Da'Sean Butler and Darryl Bryant.

Add in the fact that West Virginia has only lost twice in the last month and those losses came by a total of seven points, and you'll see this is going to be a war between two battle-tested and weary but streaking teams.  Both teams are playing their best ball when it matters most.  And this is a WVU squad that lost starting point guard Joe Mazzulla for the season due to injury quite some time ago.

Coach Bob Huggins' squad has reinvented itself as the season has progressed and his trio of freshman (Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones and ‘Truck' Bryant) that were considered a crutch not too long ago are now the team's crux, a blend of maturing skill and athleticism that is proving awfully tough to stop.  Just ask Pittsburgh which saw Ebanks throw down a monster jam in last night's contest that got him a spot on SportsCenter's Top 10 plays. 

While some wanted to argue that yesterday's game with the Huskies was ‘playing with house money' for SU, there's no denying this game might be.  Sure, SU would LOVE to win and it would enthrall the Orange Nation as well, but one has to wonder what's left in the tank after 110 grueling minutes of basketball in the last two days.  Add in the fact that this game won't have nearly as much of an impact on SU's NCAA tourney seeding as last night's did and you can see this one will be an uphill battle.

Seven Keys To The Game / Pressing Questions

  • Just saying:  SU is 16-0 when Onuaku scores twelve or more points this season and 9-8 when he doesn't.  SU is 10-0 when Andy Rautins shoots 50% or better from the floor and 15-8 when he fails to reach this mark.  The Orange have played seven games this season where both men have accomplished these feats.  Their average margin of victory in these contests?  Nearly fifteen points.
  • SU matches up well with West Virginia.  The Orange has size, athleticism, height and a low post presence.  Other than two freshman (Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks), the Mountaineers don't have a player taller than 6'7" receiving significant minutes.  The key to winning this game will be to establish the low post early with Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku (who fouled out early last night – more on that in the next point).  Getting the ‘Eers in foul trouble could be key in this game, as they'll likely have the fresher team and be dictating the tempo.  
  • Tonight, SU needs to utilize the players who didn't get many minutes last night.  That being said, I expect to see significant playing time (and contributions) from Kristof Ongenaet (28 minutes last night), Kris Joseph (14) and Rick Jackson (29).  These three players will all be able to excel at controlling the glass while being a bit fresher than their teammates and facing an undersized opponent.  Expect to see a bit of Eric Devendorf at the point with Rautins running the 2 in an attempt to get Johnny Flynn a couple of well-deserved breaks as well.  Rautins and Devo checked in with 49 and 61 minutes logged in last night's contest respectively.
  • West Virginia averages 72.5 points per game this season.  It has a perfect 17-0 record when it scores more than its average, while just 6-10 when it doesn't reach the mean.  The tables could very well be flipped tonight, with West Virginia wanting to run the floor and SU wanting to slow the game down.  The ‘Cuse has played well in transition as of late, but may want to avoid getting into an up-and-down the court style of game.  Hopefully, this team is able to show off some basketball IQ by working within the rhythm of the offense, yet trying to work the clock and hold the ball until late in the shot clock whenever possible.
  • What seed might SU be playing for?  One could make the argument SU should be no lower than a four seed in the Big Dance (and thus location-protected in the pod system) when comparing its résumé with other teams' (think LSU, Clemson, Washington, Purdue).  I'm not going to list off SU's wins, but this year is the one year where SU has put together a sterling résumé and should reap the benefits on Selection Sunday.  However, I could see SU getting a 4 seed regardless of whether it wins tonight.  If you add a win over Villanova or Louisville (our track record in revenge games this year is quite solid) in the Big East finals tomorrow night, the Orange could be staring down a 3 seed.  Ironically, that's the same seed it got the year it won the national title.  And if there's one thing SU proved last night, it would be that it has miles and miles of heart and it can hang with any team in the nation.  However, there's also the slight downside that this team could just as easily get bounced in the first round of March Madness also.  
  • The last time a Jim Boeheim coached team won six consecutive games against Big East opponents in the same season was in January 2005.  SU started that streak with, oddly enough, a road thumping of St. John's (eerily familiar).  The sixth game in the win streak was a victory over West Virginia.  The 2004-05 team was able to get a seventh straight win, eking by Rutgers on the road.  It's also worth noting that this team also knocked off Connecticut and West Virginia on back-to-back nights en route to winning the Big East Tournament.  While it'd be awesome for that trend to repeat itself, I think I speak for everyone when I say we wouldn't want the results of that year's NCAA tournament to repeat themselves. 
  • Because we're going for seven straight wins and I'm still just as pumped up as you are about The Game last night, I'll throw in a seventh observation:  SU has now won the last three games it trailed at halftime (versus Rutgers, at Marquette and versus UConn).  It would appear that the Cardiac ‘Cuse may be back in business.  After spending much of November and December rallying from deficits to win, SU lost the magic touch when conference play rolled around.  Hopefully this trend has reverted back to its former self now, as it's a distinct possibility SU comes out of the game flat and trails at half.

Prediction:  #20 Syracuse 72, West Virginia 67

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