SYRACUSE ORANGE (17-9, 7-6)
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Freedom Hall: Louisville, Ky.
Favorite: Louisville by 10
All-Time Series: Louisville leads 7-4
Last Meeting: Louisville won 76-71 on 1/27/07
Probable Starting Lineup
G Johnny Flynn....15.5 ppg
G Paul Harris......14.2 ppg
C Arinze Onuaku...12.6 ppg
F Kristof Ongeanet...3.6 ppg
F Donte Greene......17.9 ppg
Three weeks ago - for a post that never came to fruition - I was ranking Louisville's final nine opponents from most difficult to least difficult. Tonight's adversary came in third, just behind the mirror games with Georgetown.
Syracuse has hovered around .500 since the start of conference play, but the Orange play a brand of basketball that Louisville has struggled against this season. They'll utilize the same sound 2-3 zone that Connecticut did on Jan. 28, and they'll the play the same push-and-pop offense that Seton Hall did on Jan. 19.
And they'll do it with Donte Greene.
Greene, a freshman, is the most physically gifted player in the Big East. A 6-11, 226 lbs. freak who can handle the ball and hit the outside shot, he ranks in the top 15 in the league in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, three-pointers made, three-point percentage, and minutes played. He's a tough matchup for any opponent, but Louisville's zone has surrendered some particularly large numbers to versatile wings (Hazell, Tucker, McKenzie, Mason Jr.), so Greene's play looms especially large tonight.
If Greene isn't the one putting the ball up, then chances are good that it's another freshman - point guard Johnny Flynn - who is. A phenomenal ball-handler and capable outside shooter, Flynn has been given the green light to play free and loose, partly because of the season-ending injuries to fellow guards Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins. He ranks third in the league in assists, tenth in scoring, and 12th in steals. He's also the team's best free-throw shooter at 78.4%. The poise and effort demanded of him because of Louisville's press and halfcourt traps make him the single most important player in tonight's game.
Flynn's partner at the top of the zone is sophomore Paul Harris, a player finally starting to live up to the lofty expectations set by his amateur career. Harris was one of the highest-profile recruits in the nation two years ago, but put up modest numbers on Syracuse's NIT team of a season ago, and was off to a similar start in his sophomore campaign. The defining moment of his one and-a-half year collegiate career came when he made the following statements after a six-point performance in a loss to Villanova:
"I didn't play half as good as I can play. Not at all. I didn't even really try to get rebounds. Some of them just kind of fell into my hands. And I didn't score as much. If I'd have made some game-changing plays - like, get offensive rebounds or anything - we could have won. I take the blame."
"As soon as I came out of the game, I was like . . . I don't know. I mean, I was just ready to cheer the team on. I should have told (Boeheim) after that, 'Don't put me back in.' Jonny Flynn kept telling me, 'C'mon. C'mon. When are you going to be ready to play?' I don't know. It is what it is."
Since his admission of lethargy, Harris has average 17 points and nearly eight rebounds a contest, including a 22-point, eight-rebound performance in the win over Georgetown on Saturday. Though he's listed as a guard, Harris is the team's leading rebounder and scores the vast majority of his points around the rim. How effective he can be against Louisville's imposing frontcourt will be key.
Sophomore forward Arinze Onuaku is the fourth player on the team averaging double figures at 12.6 ppg. At 6-9, 260 lbs, he is an intimidating presence in the paint, and one of the main reasons Syracuse was able to put the clamp on Roy Hibbert on Saturday. Onuaku is second in the Big East in field goal percentage at 65.4%. He doesn't have a wide-array of post moves or a fearsome mid-range jumper, but he finishes when one of the three playmakers on the floor creates a good look for him.
Junior college transfer Kris Ongenaet is the 'Cuse's fifth starter. Not much of a scoring threat, Ongenaet's is on the floor almost strictly to rebound and play defense. The only other post player on the team who regularly sees the floor is freshman Rick Jackson, a player who is slightly bigger and more offensively talented than Ongenaet. He can play the four, but he ordinarily comes in to man the middle when Onuaku needs a blow.
Reserve guard Scoop Jardine appeared poised to become a big-time contributor after a 15-point performance against Villanova, but he didn't score two nights later against Georgetown, and was then suspended for two games after a bizarre incident with a stolen ID card. His stat line has been erratic in the four games since his suspension was lifted. He played 37 minutes and scored ten points in the Orange's win over South Florida, but has played just 11 total minutes and scored only three points in the other three games. How much court time he'll see or how effective he'll be tonight is anyone's guess, although it's highly probable that his presence will be required seeing as how BOTH Jim Burr and Curtis Shaw are working a nationally televised game.
Syracuse comes into the game with all the momentum in the world after its decisive win over Georgetown on Saturday, and with all the motivation of a team sitting squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
But there's a reason Louisville is favored by double-digits.
Freedom Hall is the last place a team that goes just seven deep wants to play its second game in three days. The Cards will press Syracuse - which is third-to-last in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio - for 40 minutes, and wait for those brief stretches when the young Orange get either tired or flustered. Boeheim's boys love to run and utilize Greene's advantages in transition, but the soon-to-be first round draft pick hasn't seen a pair of players as athletic as Terrence Williams and Earl Clark thus far in his collegiate career. How he responds and adjusts will be interesting.
Perhaps because of the lack of both depth and experience, Syracuse's trademark zone hasn't been quite as effective as in years past. The Orange rank 14th in the league in scoring defense, and 8th in both field goal percentage defense and three-point percentage defense. A tired and soft zone will inevitably yield open shots from the outside, which means the Cardinals must - again - take (and make) the uncontested shots that are presented.
This is undoubtedly going to be a game of spurts where poise and maturity will likely win out. There will be a plethora of athletes on the floor, so - while it sounds almost silly - it's going to be important for guys not to hang their heads or take possessions off because they had their shot blocked or were dunked on. This is yet another area where having someone like David Padgett is enormous.
In an up and down game such as this, who wins and who loses could easily come down to something as simple as which team converted more of its uncontested shots around the basket. Louisville missed at least eight bunnies against Providence, an effort they can't afford to repeat.
Both teams play zone, both teams have athletes, both teams like to run, so watch for the squad that shoots the ball better from the outside and turns the ball over the least to be the victor.
CC Prediction: Louisville 81, Syracuse 77
The Cards trail for much of the game, but ride a big run in the middle of the second half to victory.