UPDATING THE ORANGE
The Mountaineers pushed rival Pitt, out-gritting and gutting the No. 2 Panthers in a 74-60 result that highlighted all action until SU topped Connecticut in a six-overtime thriller. That sent two top seeds home and set the big city spotlight squarely on a game that's as difficult to project as any in recent memory. Syracuse's stamina issue has led some pundits to project that WVU should – of all things – press all game in the hope of wearing out the Orange. Yet that's not what won the first two tournament games for the league's seven-seed, and it's not likely something head coach Bob Huggins will embrace with the shooting ability and athleticism of the foe. SU will certainly stay in the trademark 2-3 zone, but will likely need a great defensive game to offset what most expect to be tired legs and thus a lack of proper form and arc on shots. This is arguably the most unpredictable game in recent memory, so with that thought here's a look at the match-ups.
The most difficult individual match-up is at point guard, where Truck Bryant will try to limit Jonny Flynn (6-0, 186 lbs.). Though Flynn has just one year of experience on the WVU freshman, the New York state native's complete game and ability to create his own shot or set someone else up is impeccable. Flynn played 67 of a possible 70 minutes against Connecticut and 38 of a possible 40 in SU's 74-61 win over the Mountaineers earlier this season. He's head coach Jim Boehiem's go-to player and the floor leader, and he is hitting 45 percent from the field. Though not the primary three-point threat, he can hit from beyond the arc and possesses a better than two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio and a team-best 51 steals. Flynn and shooting guard Eric Devendorf (6-4, 178 lbs.) each dumped in 22 points in the teams' first meeting, and the latter matched that total in the win over UConn before fouling out in the fifth overtime. Devendorf is a headache, both for his antics and immature attitude and his solid floor play. He missed five of six threes against the Mountaineers, but he is nearing 40 percent from long range for the season and has the tendency to disappear for stretches, then make a huge shot – and boast about it by talking, thumping a chest or jumping upon media tables when it doesn't even count. It's an even bet as to where the most difficulty lies: slowing his game or refraining from becoming involved in his displays.
Small forward Paul Harris (6-5, 228 lbs.), who played the second-most minutes against UConn with 55, is averaging 13 points, a solid third behind Flynn's 17.8 and Devendorf's 15.6. Mostly an interior player, the junior averages 8.2 rebounds and has 181 on the defensive end for the year. He has an above-average vertical and the intelligence to find a man and block him out, not just simply jump for a board. He'll turn the ball over some, though, and WVU has players who can handle his scoring – though maybe not his rebounding, as he got 13 in the first game. Boeheim's two big men, Arinze Onuaku (6-9, 258 lbs.) and Rick Jackson (6-9, 235 lbs.), often alternate with subs Kristoff Ongenaet (6-8, 215 lbs.) and freshman Kris Joseph (6-7, 220 lbs.), so all four remain relatively fresh. Onuaku logged the most minutes last night, and that was just 39, not even a full game. So the idea that SU could be totally worn down, especially in frontcourt play, isn't necessarily true. Onuaku averages better than 10 points and seven rebounds, and his sizzling 67 percent shooting showcases an understanding of when to attack and how to use shot angles and finish. Ongenaet hits for just three points and is in mainly for his defense and length.
Jackson played 31 minutes against the Mountaineers and 29 last night and should be as fresh as any other player. His eight points per game are a solid contribution, and his length in the paint can cause issues. Joseph played 14 minutes against the Huskies and averages 14 per game with three points. He's a role player and can steal minutes, although for a newcomer Boeheim has gotten quality play and good shooting out of him. The reserve guard, spot-up shooter Andy Rautins (6-5, 193 lbs.), should be of more concern than any of the forwards. The junior nailed six of 12 three-point shots last game and his ability to hit from anywhere on the floor – even well beyond the collegiate line – will force WVU to guard the entire court. Rautins shockingly missed all four of his threes the last time against the Mountaineers, but he remains hot in Madison Square Garden and is a fine defender as well. This is a tough chore for the Mountaineers, especially with Boeheim increasingly relying upon him for point production. That has come against bigger teams, though, and SU might look to pound inside more in this game.
The Mountaineers are looking at a six to seven seed at worst for the NCAA Tournament, and might be able to lock in a five with a win tonight. The Orange are in a similar position, and despite the excellent deep shooting that helped carry SU over Connecticut, it would appear in this game that Boehiem would want to utilize his inside game more. The Mountaineers lack the size and raw talent of UConn, and guard the perimeter much better. The lesser minutes were logged by the forwards last night as well, as Flynn, Rautins and Devendorf all played at least 51, with Flynn gutting it out for 67. That's the equivalent of another entire half-plus, meaning he has thus far played nearly every minute of about 2.5-plus games. That will extend to 3.5 games in little more than two days, and one would think that, along with the emotion of a six overtime game, would impact all guard play. Still, this is a far better match-up for Syracuse than was UConn, and it could be the ability of the forwards that decides it even though the focus will be upon the backcourt and the play of Flynn, Rautins, Devendorf and WVU's Alex Ruoff after a pair of solid showings.
|Fri. March. 13
9 p.m. EST
Madison Square Garden
WVU 23-10, 12-8
Syracuse 25-8, 13-7
|XM 217 (Syracuse)|
WVU - 19
Syracuse - 14
Syracuse will sit in its zone and try to expend as little energy on defense as possible. WVU ran Pit ragged with constant motion and cutting, but that won't work as well to wear down a team in a purely zone set. It reasons that the Mountaineers won't be able to attack from inside or with similar angles as it did the first two games, and it the shooting is off, it could be very difficult to score. West Virginia missed 20 of 27 threes against the Orange earlier this season and often settled for those deep looks instead of working the ball for manageable attempts. Ruoff and Da'Sean Butler combined for a five of 17 showing from outside the arc, and anything close to that won't hack it now. Devin Ebanks has and should play with more efficiency and effectiveness now than he did in a three-for-10 shooting night in the Dome, and that will place adequate pressure underneath and should open some cutting and passing lanes into the paint. Still, WVU must have some outside shooting, and it must limit the same from SU to advance to a second Big East Tournament final in five years.
WVU: Joe Mazzulla, out (shoulder – will miss rest of season).
This is just the third meeting between Bob Huggins and Jim Boeheim, with the coaches splitting games thus far. Huggins did play against Boeheim when he was in his first season as head coach at Syracuse in 1976-77.
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WVU is 27-40 all-time at Madison Square Garden. It has won 12 of its last 17 in the ‘World's Most Famous Arena.' It has won eight of its last 12 Big East Tournament games, by far the best streak in school history since joining the conference.
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West Virginia advanced to 43-2 when leading a game by 10 or more points under Huggins as it topped Pitt 74-60.
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Syracuse has won nine of the last 10 series meetings. WVU won last year in Morgantown and lost at the Carrier Dome earlier this season. The schools are 1-1 on neutral courts.
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WVU leads the Big East in scoring defense, holding foes to 61 points per game on average. It limited Pitt to 60 points and outrebounded the Panthers for a second straight series game. It was the first time Pitt had been outrebounded since it played the Mountaineers on Jan. 25.
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With a win, the Mountaineers would advance to their second conference title game in Big East history. They are trying for their first conference postseason championship since 1983-84. This marks the third Big East Tournament semifinal appearance (2005, '08). WVU played against Syracuse in the 2005 final.