Tune in and put away the remote. You won’t want to miss a second of this Big East clash when Jay Wright and his No. 7 Villanova Wildcats (23-4/ 12-3) collide with Jim Boeheim and his No. 4 Syracuse Orange (26-2/ 13-2).
First place in the Big East and a possible number one seed in the NCAA Tournament hang in the balance.
An on-campus record crowd of 34,616 is expected to file into the Carrier Dome. The university is already encouraging fans to plan ahead and arrive early. Both of Syracuse’s losses this year have come at home.
Wright and his Wildcat staff will have to make a decision about junior guard, Corey Stokes.
Dwayne Anderson led six Wildcats in double figures as Villanova trumped SU at the Dome last February, 89-86. Dante Cunningham led all with 12 rebounds as Villanova got the better of the boards, 34-30.
Syracuse leads the all-time series 34-30, but Wright boasts a record of 9-4 against his Big East foe. Villanova swept the series a year ago, and the Wildcats have taken three of four in the Dome.
Villanova has earned 30 invitations to The Dance, including last year’s Final Four appearance, and a national championship in 1985.
The Orange have made 26 NCAA Tournament appearances under Boeheim. In the last 10 years Syracuse has reached "The Dance" seven times with three Sweet Sixteen appearances (‘00, ‘04, ‘09) and a national championship in ‘03.
Thirty-four Orange have earned spots in the NBA. Carmelo Anthony, Jonny Flynn, Donte Green, Jason Hart, Etan Thomas, and Hakim Warrick currently hold spots in the Association.
Thirty-eight Wildcats have moved on to the Association. Malik Allen, Dante Cunningham, Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, and Tim Thomas spent their college days playing for Villanova.
Villanova plays a four-guard set with no one taller than 6′8″ in the starting five.
The Orange go with a front line of two 6′9″ players and 6′7″ forward.
In their two losses, Syracuse’s zone was susceptible to high-low action on the interior. But both Pittsburgh and Louisville had the bigs that could execute that plan.
How big of a role will be played by Villanova’s 6′10″ Mouphtaou Yarou? The freshman averages almost 13 minutes off the bench. He scores three points and grabs three boards but gets called for 2.3 fouls per game.
Villanova’s offense starts with Scottie Reynolds. The senior guard is at his best when he can exploit open lanes to the basket. He is adept at drawing contact and finishing. Reynolds scores 19 a game with 3.3 assists and 2.7 turnovers, and hits 40 percent from behind the three-point arc. He will need success from long range to create gaps in the Orange zone.
Corey Fisher adds almost 14 a game along with an assist to turnover ratio of 1.9:1. Most of Fisher’s assists come from drive and dish situations.
At 6′8″, Antonio Pena represents Villanova’s tallest starter. He scores 11 and grabs 7.5 boards. The junior’s biggest challenge Saturday will be staying out of foul trouble while limiting the SU front court.
Reggie Redding chips in nearly eight points and five rebounds.
The big question for Wright deals with his decision regarding Stokes. The junior is valuable to the Villanova attack hitting 34 percent from beyond the arc.
Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins have led the Orange charge for much of the year. The two have combined for 27 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists per outing.
Rautins’ selfless play has been key to the Orange success. The senior guard finds seams in opposing defenses that most could not. Rautins does not always get credit for assists, but his passes always shift defenses. Add to that his 41 percent accuracy from behind the arc, and Rautins is dangerous.
Johnson makes a variety of plays for the Orange. His most overlooked contribution to the Orange attack could be his work on the offensive glass. Johnson has grabbed an offensive board in all but four contests this year. Two of those games were blowouts. The others were wins for the Orange where opposing defenses made it a priority to limit Johnson.
Freshman guard Brandon Triche might face his biggest challenge yet this year. Triche averages just under nine points and three assists, but the Wildcats will bring more pressure than he has seen thus far. Triche has shown flashes where he can drive strong to the basket and finish. Can he do that against Villanova’s guards?
Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku are formidable pair in the paint. The two combine for twenty points and nearly 12 rebounds.
Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine give this Orange lineup valuable minutes from the bench. Joseph has scored in double figures in eight of the last nine Syracuse games. In 21 minutes per game, Jardine has amassed an assist to turnover ratio of 2.3:1.
Syracuse’s two losses are the result of complacency. The Orange carried a 13-game winning streak into their loss to Pittsburgh. Louisville has floundered this year and caught the Orange unprepared. Syracuse will not look past Villanova.
The Wildcats have struggled of late, losing two of their last three. Wright’s gang will be prepared, but what effect will the Stokes situation have? Villanova can ill afford to lose any of their key contributors for this game.
Villanova will need as many easy baskets as possible. They will press and trap looking to create turnovers and lay ups. The Wildcats will need to slow the Orange in transition.
Villanova will stay close, but Syracuse’s bench will be the difference.
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