#7 Villanova Wildcats (10-0) vs. Syracuse Orange (6-3)
When: Saturday, December 20, 2014, at 1 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Syracuse’s Previous Season Record: 28-6, Lost to Dayton in Third Round of NCAA Tournament
Key Players for Syracuse: #25 Rakeem Christmas (6-9, 250) Sr., F; #10 Trevor Cooney (6-4, 195) Jr., G; #5 Chris McCullough (6-10, 225) Fr., F
Scouting Report: C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant, and Tyler Ennis were three instrumental players for the successful season that Syracuse had last year. They were undefeated for a majority of the season before a late-season collapse, where they lost six of their last ten games. With Fair, Grant, and Ennis gone, it was expected that this year’s Syracuse team was going to face their share of struggles. There’s an obvious difference between last season and this season. For starters, Syracuse hasn’t been ranked for most of the season thus far. They also received their first loss of the season in the first month. It’s definitely a subpar season by Syracuse’s standards, while there are a lot of schools out there who would love to be in their shoes. The mystique seems to be absent, but they aren’t quite empty handed either. Rakeem Christmas is back. Since it’s that time of the year again, expect to hear all of the broadcasters’ Christmas-filled puns that go along with him. Christmas was the hero in Syracuse’s last game, sinking a last-second shot to beat Louisiana Tech. After taking the back seat for the past few years, he has emerged as one of the premier go-to players for the Orange. He’s averaging an impressive team-high 16.9 points and 8.9 rebounds. He’s no slouch on defense either, leading the team in blocks with 2.4 per game. Christmas has had a reputation of being a skilled post defender, now that his offensive game is picking up too, he’s dangerous. Helping him out inside is freshman Chris McCullough, who has played well thus far. He loves to work the inside in Christmas’ shadow, where he’s right behind him in points and rebounds with 13.3 and 8.4, respectively. However, he is incompetent when he has to go to the line. He is shooting a mediocre 56.3% from the free throw line. Two weeks ago, in the game against St. John’s, he shot a horrendous 3-for-10 in foul shots.
The backcourt is led by the returning Trevor Cooney. Cooney is a lethal three-point shooter. When teams allow him to heat up from beyond the arc, he makes them pay accordingly. He has been rather inconsistent this season, but still has the shooting stroke. Over the last five games, his scoring has gone up and down. In two out of the last five games, he scored five points or less and went a combined 0-for-8 from long range in those games. In the other three games, he put up double-digit scoring numbers. In the game against Louisiana Tech, he had 25 points and was 4-for-8 from downtown. Syracuse’s other starting freshman, Kaleb Joseph, is far from last season’s freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. Joseph can hold his own, but is not the dynamic flashy player that Ennis was. He averages eight points per game and 5.1 assists per game. However, the young point guard is turnover-prone. His 3.8 turnovers per game has been an issue for the Orange offense. Also keep an eye out for Tyler Roberson and B.J. Johnson, Syracuse’s key bench players. Roberson is the better of the two, he does a little of everything. He can chip in a steady amount of points, but he’s excellent at crashing the board and grabbing rebounds. He’s coming off of a 14 point, 17 rebound performance. 11 of those 17 were offensive rebounds. On the other hand, Johnson isn’t going to contribute many points but he’s another decent rebounder. He can do the other things competently.
Outlook: Yes, Villanova is firing on all cylinders and Syracuse is not quite the same, but it is still a big rivalry game. With all rivalry games, you simply never know. They bring the best out of people. Last season’s meeting was intense, this one could be. While Syracuse is 6-3, I don’t want to quickly look past them, after all it is Syracuse. The answer seems simple, let Daniel Ochefu and JayVaughn Pinkston hold down the paint and keep Christmas and the others out. Seems like a great idea. After all, Syracuse doesn’t really have another scoring option outside of the post. The Orange are in dead last when it comes to shooting threes. Their 22.9% from beyond the arc is currently the worst in the NCAA.
As crazy as it sounds, Villanova may need to pay more attention to the perimeter. Maybe not the whole team, but Trevor Cooney in particular. We all know what happened last year. Villanova was leading 25-7 on the road at Syracuse, until one man served as a catalyst for the comeback. Cooney got it going from beyond the arc and shot his team back into the game, from there it opened up other opportunities for the other guys. He punishes teams that allow him to heat up from beyond the arc. Villanova has to keep him in check. He was cold until the moment he sank that three to break the run, then from there he was unstoppable. They should definitely keep an eye on Christmas, but an even closer one on Cooney.
With that said, the Wildcats know how to break down that Jim Boeheim 2-3 zone. They were able to do it for a while in last season’s meeting. I’m sure they haven’t forgotten about that game and will surely look to avenge it. Big guys down low need to stay out of foul trouble and keep the Christmas-McCullough tandem at bay. Guards will have to make sure that Cooney doesn’t comfortable out there on the perimeter. Villanova’s press has done an excellent job so far of punishing teams that turn the ball over quite often. Kaleb Joseph is in for a rude awakening. This is a very winnable game for Villanova, nothing will feel better than to beat your rivals and avenge a loss.