It’s the moment all Big East fans have been waiting for.
A battle of the two conference titans featuring contrasting styles should be one for the ages considering there is so much on the line. The story lines are legion: Big East seeding, tournament seeding, conference championship on the line, zone vs. man, guards vs. bigs, rebounding vs. shooting, quickness vs. brawn, New York vs. Philly, the list goes on and on.
Breaking down this game isn’t all that hard, but figuring out which style wins out in the end is one of the many things that makes this basketball game so intriguing. Let’s start with personnel and then get to the keys to the game for both squads.
Syracuse Orangemen Backcourt vs. the Villanova Wildcats Backcourt
Brandon Triche/Scoop Jardine vs. Scottie Reynolds
Andy Rautins vs. Corey Fisher
In this battle, Syracuse is looking for as close to stalemate as possible on the offensive end. Triche/Jardine and Rautins have to do a good job valuing the basketball and controlling pace so they can use their dominant bigs to punish the smallish Villanova frontcourt.
The Villanova guards should be able to dictate tempo defensively by pressuring the ball and denying one pass away. They do their frontcourt mates a huge disservice by allowing Syracuse to reverse the ball in the halfcourt creating entry passing angles for back to the basket monsters like Jackson and Onuaku.
Syracuse Orangemen Frontcourt vs. the Villanova Wildcats Frontcourt
Wesley Johnson vs. Corey Stokes
Rick Jackson vs. Reggie Redding
Arinze Onuaku vs. Antonio Pena
Syracuse never has to worry about matchups because of their zone, but for Villanova something has got to give on the matchup front. If the Wildcats want to play their starting personnel for significant minutes either their glorified four guard look will need to turn over the Syracuse guards on a regular basis, which would negate the Orangemen’s huge advantage on the glass and in the paint, or Nova will be forced to zone. It’s one or the other because Redding can’t handle Onuaku or Jackson in the pivot.
If Villanova does zone, there is still no guarantee they can close out possessions with defensive rebounds because they won’t have blockout responsibilities to negate the Syracuse frontcourt’s size and athletic ability. This is why Triche and Jardine are so important. If they can take care of the basketball, Villanova is forced to go to the bench for size to matchup, which means the Wildcats won’t be playing with their best five for long stretches of the game. So let’s talk about that bench.
Syracuse has a pretty short bench playing mainly seven players. Scoop Jardine will come in to spell Triche, and to give the Orangemen more playmaking ability. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jardine get more minutes in this game because the matchups put a premium on ballhandling.
Kris Joseph is an athletic forward that will come in to spell Rautins, Johnson, or a big depending on whether Boeheim wants to go big or small.
But, for Syracuse, this isn’t the game to go small. If Joseph is playing significant minutes it’ll be at the three leaving Jackson and Onuaku on the blocks. Playing Joseph at the four gives Nova some outs and options defensively and helps keep their starting five on the floor, which would be a strategic error for Boeheim.
As for Villanova’s subs, if the Syracuse guards do take care of the ball, look for Jay Wright to capitulate and bring in size off the bench. Maurice Sutton and Mouphtaou Yarou, a pair of 6-11 guys, might see more minutes this game than they have all year to provide some big fouls and defense.
Dominic Cheek gives the Cats a long athletic wing to spell Redding, and Taylor King is a sniper off the bench that has the size to matchup up in the frontcourt. Armwood and Wayns also play double digit minutes so the Wildcats have significantly more depth than the Orange.
Keys to the Game.
Syracuse Orangemen Guard Play
This is likely the battle that decides the war. If Jardine, Triche, and Rautins can handle the Villanova pressure and take care of the basketball, Syracuse will bludgeon the Wildcats inside forcing Jay Wright to go away from his team’s strength which is guard play, in an effort to matchup to the Syracuse frontcourt.
Open Court Game
If I’m Jay Wright, I look at the game this way. I have better guard play, significantly more depth, significantly less size, facing an opponent that likes to zone on defense while planning to body blow me with two plodding bigs on offense.
My choice is real easy here. I’m going to run, pressure, and make this a 94 foot game.
The benefits are as follows:
1) More possessions mean more potential fouls on either Jackson or Onuaku. Getting one of them out of the game due to foul trouble means I can play my best five for more minutes without worrying about matchups.
2) I can use my depth to try to wear down Jackson and Anuaku by pushing tempo on makes or misses. I want these guys sprinting with Pena, Stokes, Cheeks, King, Redding, and company for as many possessions as possible.
3) One of the best ways to beat a zone is to outrun it. Get the ball up the floor before it gets set. I have speed and quickness advantages at every position on the floor, 1 through 5, so let’s outrun this thing.
4) In a 94 foot game, guard play is magnified. Passing, decision making, dribbling, etc., is emphasized over the power game. I make it a full court game by pressing, trapping, pulling the ball out of the net and running, or grabbing a board and pushing. Then sub in waves with my deep bench.
Lost in the discussion about the Syracuse guards vs. the Villanova guards is Johnson’s talent. The guy will be the most talented player on the floor, and he handles the ball very well for a wing. Whomever draws Johnson as a cover must pressure and force Wesley out of his comfort zone. If I’m Nova I deny him the basketball and make Rautins or Triche make plays on the perimeter.
Prediction. I expect this game to be played in the high 80’s because I doubt Wright wants to body blow with the Orangemen in a halfcourt slugfest.
This style didn’t work out well for Villanova vs. Pitt and this Syracuse team is basically Pitt on steroids. If I were Villanova, I’d use the Providence blue print to beat the Orange, which was uptempo to out-run the Syracuse zone. It worked well for a half, but the Friars ran out of gas due to a lack of depth. Villanova has a bunch or greyhounds so they’ve got depth in spades.
That said, Jackson and Onuaku will be too much inside and on the glass for the likes of Pena, Redding, et al. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Pena get in early foul trouble even if the game is an up and down affair. Plus, Rautins has shown an ability to handle the ball better this year, and as discussed, Johnson is great ballhandler for a small forward. These two pressure outlets will help the Jardine/Triche point guard combo overcome whatever pressure Villanova throws at the Orangemen.
Nova will have to shoot it at about a 50% clip from deep to win this game, or get one of Jackons/Onuaku in foul trouble early. I’m not betting on it though.
Prediction: Syracuse wins. 91 to 87 in a classic.
This article was written by Kevin Berger of March To March
Follow Kevin on Twitter: @MarchToMarch