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Syracuse to Face Familiar SEC Team in Challenge Play

Syracuse’s non-con schedule has never been too much to write home about, though in recent seasons, it’s been improved. After all, SU isn’t to blame for Cal and North Carolina falling on their faces after the Orange’s breakout week in 2009 at Madison Square Garden. The same can be said for Michigan State and Michigan last season, who both had to scramble in February to eek out tourney bids. The Orange had a number of other teams on their 2010 non-con slate who were coming off of tournament appearances, but their seasons didn’t pan out, either.

Events like the SEC-Big East Challenge provide opportunities to see teams from high-major conferences square off against one another, with some games providing Big Dance-caliber competition. The model has been around for over 20 years, and believe it or not, in the late-eighties, Syracuse battled Duke in the Big East-ACC Challenge (h/t to Brian from VUHoops.com on the link). I’ve always looked forward to these kinds of games, because while the team generally improves from November to March, it’s nice to get an early-season appraisal of what may be in store.

When word surfaced Thursday afternoon that the Gators would battle Syracuse for the third time in five years, and the fourth time in seven seasons, I, like many others, rolled my eyes in frustration. It isn’t that Florida is a bad or uninteresting matchup, or because their players are unlikeable (they aren’t, best as I can tell), but because the repetition cheapens the value of the game in my eyes. This isn’t an entirely fair statement to make because of the timing of his injury last season, but Kris Joseph will have played his third career game against Florida before he plays his third career game against Pittsburgh, a conference team. His concussion kept him from playing at The Pete, but there’s something not quite right about that turn of events, especially considering that there isn’t a chance meeting like an NCAA Tournament game involved.

The powers that be missed out on a chance to pair the Orange with Kentucky, which may have been a game for the ages. Both teams figure to be highly-touted in the initial rankings, and the chance to rehash some of the 1996 championship game plotlines would make for a great narrative. A date with stout Vanderbilt or a Georgia or Alabama team on the rise would also make things fresh, but it’s hard to know what went on behind closed doors.

Putting the frustration of the news aside, I actually think this will be a very interesting game, with the potential to morph into a track meet. Florida is officially out of its post-title dynasty rut after an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season. The Gators’ top two scorers, Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, return and are quick guards, and their backcourt will get a sizable boost from a big-time shooter in freshman Bradley Beal. In addition, an old friend of Syracuse, Mike Rosario, will be eligible after sitting out his transfer year from Rutgers last season. While the season is a long ways away, SU’s deep group of guards will be able to run with Florida if the Gators want to make it that kind of game.

Another reason why I’m not getting too hung up about the repeat Florida game is because we’re still waiting to hear about the schedule for the NIT Season Tip-Off, which includes the Orange. Early (but unconfirmed) reports are that Syracuse will be matched up with Stanford, who could make some noise with the new-look Pac-12, and the two-game event should offer up a solid opponent to break up the monotony of mainstays like Cornell, Colgate, Siena and Canisius. And now, apparently, Florida.

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