Conference Play Rolls In
The start of conference play is always a little re-invigorating. Typically, Syracuse’s last few games of non-con play are easy lay-ins devised by the coaching staff to make sure everything is in line for league play, from the depth chart factors to making sure there are opportunities to give rest to anyone who needs it. Add in the somewhat lengthy break from Christmas where the schedule dies down where I’m left watching a tilt like UTEP-Auburn Sunday night that would be a throwaway game on any other night and you can picture my elation for conference play to resurface.
To catch up on how the conference is doing as a whole, the top is as formidable as it’s ever been, but the gap between the good teams and everyone else has widened in comparison to past seasons. In addition to Syracuse, Connecticut, Marquette and Louisville have elbowed into the top ten nationally. While Georgetown has been one of the bigger stories, the rest of the top half is not as imposing as usual. I’m always hesitant to buy into a team like Cincinnati whose schedule can be mistaken for a D-II team’s if you squint just hard enough, and West Virginia is short on impressive performances. Moving on down, we aren’t used to seeing Villanova toiling like they have been, Notre Dame looks depressingly mediocre with Tim Abromaitis sitting the season with a torn ACL, and Steve Lavin’s construction project at St. John’s has suffered some big setbacks. Then of course you have the dregs at the bottom fighting it out for scraps. I wouldn’t expect the conference to get nine teams into the NCAA Tournament, but it still has a slight chance of happening if only because none of the other power conferences (with the exception of the Big Ten) have stepped up either.
Obviously, there’s a ton of basketball left and things are far from set. For the Orange, the conference slate is bookended with a fairly easy stretch – Seton Hall at home followed by DePaul and Providence in their hauntingly quiet environs – and games at Connecticut and home against Louisville to close out the regular season. While I feel Louisville is overrated right now, the Cardnials should be much better by February, assuming all of their injured players heal as scheduled.
For the Orange, opening night at the Big East Theater could be too suspenseful for my tastes, but it could also be very entertaining, if history is any indicator. To me, the series against Seton Hall has been one of the most confounding of any conference opponent, particularly in recent seasons. No matter how beatable SHU has looked going in, the results of late have made for a surprisingly mixed bag. Since 2003, Syracuse and Seton Hall have played each other nine times. Four have resulted in decisive wins for SU (by 12+ points), two more wins have come by seven or fewer points, and The Hall have won the other three games by seven, seven and 22 points, respectively. Only twice in that span has Seton Hall fielded an NCAA Tournament team, so I feel pretty safe assuming that they were the underdogs in all nine of those matchups. In short, the Pirates have been a tough out (or worse) almost as often as they’ve been an easy win. For a team that’s scuffled as much as Seton Hall, it’s really perplexing.
Of course, we can’t hold the current team accountable for what happened in 2004, but it’s worth noting that the Orange have shot just 42% against Seton Hall in their last three games. That’s not a good sign as SU hosts a Hall team that has been one of the big stories of the conference, as they’ve raced out to an 11-1 start with wins over VCU, Saint Joseph’s and Dayton – Not world-beaters by any stretch, but impressive nonetheless when you consider the health and coaching problems that have been so pervasive over the last few years. These days, Herb Pope is finally at full strength and highly reliable, Fuquan Edwin has been Waiters-like in his defensive intensity and scoring acumen inside the arc, and point guard/Donald Faison lookalike Jordan Theodore has been dishing out assists at a rate unmatched by all but 17 players in the country, all the while playing 89% of the available minutes.
It may not seem like it when you think of Seton Hall, but this is shaping up to be one of the most interesting and unpredictable games of the season. The numbers suggest that this should still be an easy win for Syracuse, and I’m still confident in the Orange, but by the same token, it may be one of those rare matchups where you have to take the numbers at face value because recent history has repeatedly shown that things rarely go as planned.