Crush the Orange or be crushed: UConn-Syracuse game preview

We've had lots of fun with Syracuse Hate Half-Week but, as always, all good things must come to an end. We now turn our attention to the basketball court, where Syracuse and UConn are set to meet in snowy(?) upstate New York tonight. It's the appetizer for the 350 million people who are clamoring for Duke-UNC, or so ESPN's advertising would lead us to believe.

Anyway, the Cuse are an exceptionally formidable opponent this year, and they're playing at home tonight. Can UConn make a run at knocking the Orange off their perch? Will Wes Johnson and co. prove to be too much for the struggling Huskies? Will we get our comeuppance for three days of semi-serious trash talk?

Let's find out.

The game: UConn (14-9, 4-6 Big East) at #2 Syracuse (23-1, 10-1)

The place: The Carrier Dome, Syracuse

The time: 7 p.m.

The media: TV: ESPN; Radio: WTIC 1080-AM

The Vegas favorite: Syracuse, by 10.5

Series history: Syracuse leads, 49-35

The Orange, of course, were a power in the early days of the Big East, and won 25 of their first 34 meetings against UConn.

Of course, in 1986, the gospel of basketball came to Connecticut from on high, in the form of one Jimothy Champion Calbertus Magnus Calhoun. UConn won its first Big East tournament title against the Orange during the Dream Season.

Since Feb. 15, 1993, the Huskies have won 21 of 34 meetings between the two teams.

Last meeting: Syracuse 127, UConn 117 (6OT); March 12, 2009 at Madison Square Garden, New York.

Didn't even have to look that stuff up. I was there, lucky enough to be in the front row of the press section (thank you, Daily Campus), about 10 feet to the right of Eric Devendorf when he didn't make a 3-pointer at the end of regulation. Afterwards, I blogged about it. Now, apparently, Syracuse fans think it bothers us that we lost this game. Uh, sorry. It wasn't for a title of any kind, and it's kind of cool being a part of the Greatest Game Ever Played. As noted elsewhere, the Final Four trip was more than enough salve for that wound.

The last time these two teams played in the Carrier Dome, UConn won, 63-61, during the epic 10-game win streak of 2007-08. UConn, of course, is 1-0 at the conclusion of TheUConnBlog's Syracuse Hate Half-Week, having beaten the Orange 63-49 last season in Gampel.

State of the Huskies: UConn comes in after breaking their three-game winning streak in most unmemorable fashion, a 64-57 home victory over DePaul on Saturday. UConn didn't play any better or worse than they did during the six losses in the previous eight games, but DePaul happens to be a fairly terrible basketball team.

The Huskies actually trailed with just over five minutes to play, and needed to make some big buckets down the stretch to hold off the worst team in the Big East at Gampel. It was distressing.

Nevertheless, it was still a win - a win that kept UConn's fading NCAA Tournament hopes alive, at least for another day. And there are decent signs for the rest of the season (Ater Majok's noticeable game-by-game improvement, Kemba Walker's string of solid games). So that's nice.

So, tell me a little bit about the Orange: Syracuse fans are extremely cocky this season, and with good reason. The Orange are arguably one of the two or three best teams in America, and Boeheim's bunch are off to their best start in school history.

Syracuse has turned out to be an exceptional squad on offense, led by Wes Johnson (16.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg), the Iowa State transfer who has come from anonymity and become a contender for Big East Player of the Year honors. Johnson is 6-foot-7, 205 pounds, and a nightmare matchup for just about anyone. With the rangy Johnson keying Boeheim's 2-3 defense, the Orange have put up light-years-better team defensive numbers, compared to the previous six seasons. Johnson is the perfect anchor for a team with a bunch of good guards and two intimidating post presences.

The Orange have a very talented backcourt, featuring sharpshooters Andy Rautins (10.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and Brandon Triche (9.5 ppg, 40.7 from 3), as well as team assist leader Scoop Jardine (4.8 per; his assist rate of 36.1 is 21st in the country according to KenPom).

Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson are both efficient post players who score when they get a shot off (Onuaku, one of the regular national leaders in field goal percentage, is shooting 67.5% this year).

Wingman Kris Joseph (11.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and guard Mookie Jones (6.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg) give Boeheim eight viable options to match up with anyone in the country.

Early-season wins against UNC and Memphis don't look as good as they do now, but Syracuse is 7-1 against the top 52 teams in the country according to the KenPom rankings.

Check out the game notes: UConn's are here, while Syracuse’s are here.

The preview: There are plenty of reasons to think that this matchup might not be fun to watch, from a UConn perspective.

First of all, it's in the Carrier Dome, and UConn has won as many true road games against Division I college basketball teams that I have this season.

Second, UConn has a well-documented aversion to shooting 3-pointers (they take the fewest 3-pointers in the NCAA, and it's not particularly close), and when they do shoot them, the Huskies are not particularly adept. That's a problem when breaking down a 2-3 zone, particularly one as impenetrable as Syracuse's has been.

Thirdly, Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson have been turnover machines most of the season, giving opponents easy transition points. Syracuse is one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers.

On the other hand, other teams have been successful at forcing UConn into running a halfcourt offense, which is basically a death sentence for this bunch. If Syracuse does that, it's tough to see UConn scoring a whole lot. Witness Georgetown, who scored just 56 when they went to the Dome last month.

But is this as lopsided a matchup as it seems? Here's a run down of KenPom's Four Factors. Higher offensive numbers and lower defensive numbers (turnovers being the opposite) are what you're looking for here.

UConn Syracuse
KenPom Rank 54 3
Off. Efficency 107.9 117.3
Def. Efficency 91.3 86.4
Off. EFG% 49.5 58.9
Def. EFG% 43.7 44.5
Off. Reb% 36.8 37.2
Def. Reb% 34.2 34.7
Off. TO% 20.9 21.7
Def. TO% 17.7 23.6
Off. FT Rate 45.8 37.8
Def. FT Rate
22.7 24.9

 

There are encouraging signs in this here chart.

Syracuse's efficiency on both ends of the court is astonishing (comparable to the best UConn teams of the last six years), while UConn's is merely OK. But the individual pieces tell a slightly more optimistic story.

The Orange's effective FG% is outstanding (2nd in America), and just about every Orange player who sees the court tonight can flat out score. But I don't think UConn's halfcourt defense will be overmatched.

Wes Johnson is basically Stanley Robinson with the elite basketball skills that we expected Sticks to develop in Storrs. But athleticism is at worst a wash, and theoretically Sticks should be able to stay in front of him. (Famous last words.) Ater Majok has turned into something of a defensive force lately, and Onuaku/Jackson will present a big test for both him and Oriakhi/Edwards/Okwandu.

UConn doesn't defend the 3 very well (come on down, Will Walker! You're the next contestant to have a career night against UConn!) but, uh...maybe they'll get lucky tonight and Syracuse won't shoot the lights out.

On defense, the best strategy might be to just throw as many bodies possible at hacking Jackson and Onuaku without regard to foul trouble. They're two of the worst free throw shooters around (49.2% and 42.1%, respectively).

Two encouraging signs:

1) Because the Cuse is a 100 percent zone team, their rebounding numbers don't jump out at you. UConn should be able to crash the boards and pick up second chance points, which they haven't been able to do all season. Picking up easy garbage points (and not going one-shot-and-out) will be crucial for the Huskies to spring the upset.

2) Syracuse turns the ball over a bunch, and they also force lots of turnovers. An up-and-down game would seem to be a slight edge to UConn, and really, the fewer times UConn has to play against the 2-3, the better.

So how does UConn win this game?

UConn's going to have to shoot better than average, and Syracuse is going to have an off-night (or UConn's defense is going to have to play above and beyond). If Syracuse gets out to an early lead (like DePaul did Saturday night), it's going to be curtains.

If you had to draw up a script for a UConn victory, it would go something like: UConn jumps out to an early lead, Syracuse never quite gets into a shooting rhythm until midway through the second half, UConn contains Johnson and Majok slows down Onuaku. (And of course, Syracuse makes four 3-pointers to cut UConn's lead to 1 with a minute left before UConn would go on to win, but that goes without saying.)

It's certainly possible. It's roughly what happened to the Orange against Pittsburgh, and nearly again against DePaul a week ago. UConn, despite their record, has the talent to pull this off. Current form says, no, UConn has absolutely no shot at following that blueprint. But hey, crazier things have happened in a single-game scenario.

The prediction: This is a game that would help out UConn a lot, postseason- and morale-wise. Syracuse doesn't really need it, unless they want a shot at the #1 ranking (and curse that comes with it). If George Blaney can't motivate UConn to come out and play with some intensity today of all days, even if the Huskies lose, then it may be time to pack it in and pray for a home game in the NIT.

In the end, I don't think the gap between these two teams is as large as commonly perceived. (And I'm not even getting into the "UConn has played multiple top 10 teams down to the final minute" anecdotal evidence.)

But there is a gap. And it's one that I just can't see UConn overcoming barring a fortunate series of events, as described above.

Then again, UConn is 328th in America in KenPom's luck statistic. So maybe we're due. But I'm cynical, so...

Syracuse 74, UConn 67

Enjoy the game. Go Huskies.

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