Game of the Week: Wichita State at Syracuse

November 30th, 2006

#17 Wichita State at #15 Syracuse (Saturday, December 2nd, 7:00 PM, ESPNU)

Not into college basketball yet? Well, with the calendar turning to December and college football’s regular season ending, it’s time for college basketball to take focus. Moreover, this weekend is chock full of games worth watching. The best game, though? Forget Georgetown-Duke. Gonzaga-Texas doesn’t do it for me, either. And Kentucky-North Carolina? Not this week. Nope, the best game this week is between the country’s best mid-major team, Wichita State, and a Big East contender in Syracuse. Be sure to tune in—if, of course, your cable package has ESPNU.

Wichita State came into the season with fairly high expectations after a Sweet Sixteen run last year and the return of four starters. They picked where they left off this season, starting off 4-0, including road victories over 2006 Final Four participants George Mason and LSU. They won their first two games handily, but their past two wins were by an average of just five points per game. The Shockers average 69 points per game, and allow under 58 per game. Ken Pomeroy has Wichita as the 20th-most efficient offensive team in the country, and the 30th-most efficient defensive team.

Syracuse was somewhat of a mystery in the preseason. They lost their best player from last season, Gerry McNamara, but brought back four starters and signed one of the top freshmen in the country in Paul Harris. The Orange have been impressive thus far. They are 7-0, with decent wins over Penn, UTEP, Charlotte, and Holy Cross. ‘Cuse has won their games by an average of almost 17 points per game. They are scoring almost 80 points per game, and are giving up just under 63 a contest. According to Ken Pomeroy, the Orange have the 69th-most efficient offense and the 115th-most efficient defense.

Wichita State has enough talent to repeat their 26-9 record of a year ago, including a 14-4 conference record, winning the regular season title. Moreover, the Shockers reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. However, the lone loss was MVC Player of the Year Paul Miller. So far, the Shockers have done a good job of replacing him. They look like a very solid team, both inside and outside.

The frontcourt is led by P.J. Couisnard. He had a breakout NCAA Tournament last season and is a candidate for all-conference honors this year. He is an inside-outside option on the offensive end who is also an excellent rebounder and defender. He is very consistent and contributes in a variety of ways. Kyle Wilson combines with him to form the best forward combo in the MVC. He is a versatile offensive player who can shoot the three with efficiency and score down low. He could develop into the go-to-guy for the Shockers. He is currently leading the team in scoring. Stepping in for Miller has been Colorado State transfer Phillip Thomasson. Thomasson is a solid role player who had ten points against LSU in their upset victory.

In the backcourt, Sean Ogirri leads the way. He is an outstanding three-point shooter who could take on more of an offensive role this season. He had 19 points in their win over George Mason, but struggled en route to 3 points vs. LSU. He needs to be more consistent. Matt Braeuer runs the point. He is a solid all-around performer who runs the offense well and can distribute. Ryan Martin has been a surprisingly good scorer on the wing. He is second on the team in points per game, and is also leading the team in rebounding. Karon Bradley is a good scorer off the bench who is very quick and can get into the lane, while Gal Mekel has also provided solid production in about ten minutes per game.

Syracuse is an underrated team around the country. They didn’t come into the season with a lot of hype, even with the return of four starters and a solid recruiting class. They have played well so far, although it seems that they haven’t truly hit their stride. While the Orange are very good right now, they could be even better once conference play rolls around. They have solid balance, and can score from both the perimeter and down low.

The frontcourt is made up of three seniors who have not yet lived to the expectations they came into school with. Demetris Nichols leads the way. He is a very good three-point shooter who can also rebound and play defense well. He is tops on the team in points per game. 6-9 Terrence Roberts was a candidate to have a break-out year, but like last season, he is struggling on the offensive end. However, he is very athletic and is an excellent shot-blocker and rebounder. Roberts is also a decent scorer in the paint who needs to improve his free-throw shooting. Darryl Watkins has not played very well this season, partly due to the fact he missed two games. He has been in foul trouble in nearly every game and is averaging less than twenty minutes per game. He is one of the main reasons Syracuse has been outrebounded in several games this season. 6-9 senior Matt Gorman provides depth down low. He had back-to-back double-figure scoring games earlier this season, but needs to improve his rebounding.

The backcourt has the potential to have one of the best duos in the conference. Eric Devendorf is the main man on the perimeter. The 6-4 combo guard is a very talented, albeit hot-headed, player who could improve immensely if he keeps his focus. He is a good three-point shooter who also a solid ball-handler and passer. He has been one of the best all-around players on the team so far this season, scoring and passing the ball very well. Paul Harris, an extremely highly-touted freshman, is starting to become an impact player. He can play any position on the perimeter. He is an outstanding defender and has been one of the best rebounders in the country under 6-5. Harris is also a solid shooter and passer who can score. Josh Wright has handled the point guard duties, and has performed well. He can distribute the ball well and is doing a good job of not turning the ball over. He is also very quick defensively.

While this game is not as hyped as last week’s Kansas-Florida Saturday night match-up, this one could be just as good. Wichita State has shown the ability to win on the road, with victories over George Mason and LSU away from home. Despite their lack of size, they were able to neutralize LSU’s big men in order to get the win. They are extremely balanced and don’t have a true go-to-guy. However, the Shockers have many options in the waning moments, including inside-outside options in Kyle Wilson and P.J. Couisnard, as well as shooter Sean Ogirri. Moreover, Ryan Martin is good in the mid-range and Karon Bradley is quick off the bench. Syracuse is going to have their hands full defensively with all of the match-up problems they could potentially face. They are going to need to extend their zone so Ogirri doesn’t shoot over it and they are going to have to keep an eye in the open areas so Wichita’s versatile group doesn’t sneak in for baskets. Neither team is especially explosive in the open court, but both have athletes that can get baskets in the fast-break. Wichita State is going to have play very good perimeter defense on Eric Devendorf, Paul Harris, and Demetris Nichols. They will need to get out in order to prevent open threes from Devendorf and Nichols. Moreover, Couisnard—one of the best defenders in the country—needs to keep Harris off the offensive glass so he can’t get put-backs. It would also help if the Orange could get inside production from Terrence Roberts and Darryl Watkins. They have not done much offensively this season, but need to contribute more on Saturday night. In the end, I think Wichita State’s outstanding balance and multitude of options will be too much for Syracuse. One way to beat Wichita is to get the ball down low and try to exploit their lack of size inside. However, the Orange don’t have the options down low to take advantage of that. It looks like Wichita State could add another very impressive road win to their resume.

Prediction: Wichita State 70, Syracuse 68

Prediction Record: 0-1