The best thing about the proliferation of these conference challenges is the number of big-time games it brings to the non-conference season. The SEC/Big East Invitational features two of the pleasant surprises of November in #10 Florida and #7 Syracuse. Although I was higher on the Gators than most pundits in the preseason, not many expected them to defeat Michigan State and be undefeated at this point. As for Syracuse, the Orange dominated the NIT Season Tip-Off, handling California and North Carolina with ease.
Both teams have plenty of talent across the board. Syracuse has been led by Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson, who is averaging 17.0 points and 7.2 rebounds. He has been one of the most impressive players in the country up to this point. Andy Rautins is shooting better than 50 percent from three-point range, and his passing ability and defensive skills have been key. The big man duo of Arinza Onuaku and Rick Jackson are combining to average 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds. Furthermore, the Orange are getting excellent point guard play from freshman Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, while forward Kris Joseph is averaging nearly double-figures off the bench.
Florida has been successful due to offensive balance and excellent defense. The go-to-guy for the Gators is freshman guard Kenny Boynton. He is averaging 13.9 points and has a variety of offensive abilities that make him very difficult to defend. His backcourt mate, Erving Walker, is tough to keep out of the lane and is averaging 5.0 assists. Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus are a solid big man duo, and Dan Werner is versatile. Chandler Parsons is averaging 11.1 points off the bench for the Gators. The only other player seeing double-digit minutes is swingman Ray Shipman, who had 10 points in the win over Michigan State.
There are several interesting keys to this game. The first is the fantastic defense both teams have been playing; Syracuse is ranked No. 7 in defensive efficiency by Kenpom.com, while Florida is No. 23. Both teams have plenty of length and athleticism, and can be disruptive in the half-court. The difference will be Syracuse’s versatility on offense. The Orange have players who can score inside, players who can penetrate, as well as guys who can knock down the three. At this point, Florida is not at its peak offensively. The Gators struggle to shoot the three, making them easier to contain, especially with the Syracuse 2-3 zone. The most important player will be Wesley Johnson – Florida has no one to defend him.
Prediction: Syracuse 71, Florida 64