Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- A pair of Big East teams moving in opposite directions meet this afternoon when #38 Syracuse (18-5, 6-4) faces #17 Villanova (18-4, 6-3) in Philadelphia.
The two teams have similar records, but differ in their form coming into this game. After a 16-1 start to the season, Syracuse has won only two of its last 6. This includes tough games at Pitt and at home to Louisville, but also a disappointing loss at Providence. The Orange did pick up a good win over West Virginia on Wednesday, but they have yet to earn a notable road win. Villanova started 2-3 in conference, but has hit a bit of an easier stretch of the schedule to reel off four straight wins. Don’t think that ‘easier’ means ‘easy’, though, as it includes beating Pitt by 10. This week, featuring games against Marquette and West Virginia, in addition to this game, will be a very important one in determining where in the standings the Wildcats will end up.
Syracuse is a strong offensive team – not up to the level of the Big East’s 3 or 4 top teams, but easily the best of the rest. The Orange’s ability to score depends on making a high percentage of their shots, their 55.2 eFG% is the conferences’ highest. While a lot of focus goes to Syracuse’s three-point shooting guards, the Orange actually do their best work inside, 5th in the nation in two-point percentage. A lot of this has to do with their fast pace of play, which creates a lot of fast break opportunities and open chances. This pace also can lead to a lot of turnovers, an area Syracuse struggles with. The Orange are also poor free throw shooters, under 65% on the year. Villanova has been very strong defensively, especially inside; it sits in the upper echelon of the Big East in both defending two-point shots and recovering rebounds. The Wildcats will force a good number of turnovers, but must be careful to not let Syracuse dictate play too much: when the pace has increased, Villanova’s defense has consistently gotten less effective.
Villanova’s offense is good, but nothing special; they do a lot of things well, and manage to stay effective without making a particularly high percentage of shots. The Wildcats give up few turnovers, get back a good number of misses, and make frequent trips to the free throw line, where they shoot a Big East leading 75%. Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse teams are synonymous with the 2-3 zone, which is itself associated with poor defensive rebounding and allowing a lot of attempts from the outside. While these characteristics are typical of most Syracuse defenses in recent years, this year has been somewhat different. While the Orange still struggle with defensive rebounding, and get opponents to attempt a lot of threes, this year they have been more successful defending outside shots than ones inside. Syracuse allows less than 30% of attempts from behind the arc, which is one of the nation’s best rates. Another strength of the Orange is avoiding fouls, as it is second in the country at keeping opponents off the line.
Villanova features an excellent inside-outside duo in 6-8 Dante Cunningham and 6-2 Scottie Reynolds; the two lead the team in every major category. Cunningham has not improved his play much from his solid 07-08 season, but has taken a much larger role without dropping his level, a very impressive feat. He’s a 56% shooter from the field, and averages 7 rebounds and more than a steal and a block per game. Reynolds hasn’t been quite as effective, but he’s a solid outside shooter and a good distributor of the ball, and is an excellent guy late in the game, especially from the line. Beyond Reynolds and Cunningham, five other players average between 23-and-27 minutes, providing the Wildcats with some good depth. Sophomore Corey Stokes is a 42% three-point shooter off the bench, while fellow guards Corey Fisher and starter Reggie Redding have struggled with their respective shots. Inside, Antonio Pena is one of the team’s best rebounders and a decent scorer, but has recently found himself replaced in the starting line-up by Shane Clark, who is also an effective rebounder, but doesn’t do much offensively. Dwayne Anderson’s return from a stress fracture also provides a good player on the boards, though Anderson can be too three-happy at times.
Syracuse has an excellent starting five, but its depth, especially in the backcourt, is somewhat questionable. Sophomore Jonny Flynn leads the team in points and assists, he’s a decent three point shooter, but uses his quickness and athleticism to generate a lot of good chances inside, both from open play and from the free throw line. Eric Devendorf faced some disciplinary problems earlier in the season, and it’s been critical to the Orange’s success to have him back: he’s another good shooting guard that can score both inside and outside, though he does have trouble with turnovers. Andy Rautins usually starts in the backcourt, but an ankle injury forced him to miss a game last week, and it’s unclear how he has recovered. Rautins is a three-point shooting specialist, but is just 1-for-10 in his last two games. Paul Harris is only 6-4, but he’s a spectacular athlete, and his size isn’t a big problem when going up against the Big East’s tough frontcourts. Harris shoots 53% from the field, and leads the team in rebounds. Arinze Onuaku has had some injury concerns of late that have limited his playing time, but when healthy, he’s an excellent inside option, converting 69% of his shot attempts and doing very well on the glass, while averaging more than a block per game. Syracuse’s primary bench players tend to be on the inside, led by sophomore Rick Jackson, who boasts the team’s highest blocking and rebounding rates. Belgian Kristof Ongenaet and Canadian freshman Kris Joseph are somewhat less effective options.
This looks like a fairly even contest, but Villanova’s home court advantage should be enough to get it to eke out a close finish. I typically don’t like focusing on pace too much, but Villanova’s past games suggest that if the tempo heads north of 75 possessions, its defense will struggle, while Syracuse is much more comfortable with this style. If the game turns into a track meet, Syracuse should be favoured to win it.
Winner: Villanova Margin: 3-7
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.
Editor's Early Preview
*Made on 02/06. Full preview by the GameNight staff coming soon!
Syracuse is probably over-ranked at this point due to an easy schedule to start the season, and is very mediocre away from home. Villanova should be the winner in a highly-entertaining matinee game.
Early Prediction: Villanova