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Syracuse Opens Big East Play Against Rutgers

I enjoy college basketball every step of the way, but I’m especially giddy when conference play opens up.  Despite winning 12 of its 13 games, Orange have run hot, cold and lukewarm at different points of the season to this point, so it will be interesting to see how the team looks in its last first game of Big East play tonight against Rutgers.

The Scarlet Knights have a different look and feel to them than in seasons past. Whereas we’re used to seeing Rutgers try to gut out tough, physical matchups with scores in the 50’s, 60’s or low 70’s, Mike Rice has his team playing with greater efficiency on offense, though it’s come at a cost of fielding a leakier defense than usual. Rutgers enjoyed a solid but unimpressive non-conference slate, notching wins against Princeton and Iona, but slipped up in its biggest opportunity against a pretty good Mississippi team. The Scarlet Knights bounced back nicely from an opening night loss to St. Peter’s, but went 9-1 after that and scored at least 79 points in six of their 11 games. They’ll still fight an uphill battle to get into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991, and seem to always struggle at the Carrier Dome, but this should be the most competitive team Rutgers has fielded in the last ten years or so.

The reason why the Scarlet Knights should get some respect is a dynamic, young backcourt led by Eli Carter and Myles Mack. Despite being in just their seconds years, the two combine to average over 30 points and 5 assists per game, and Mack is right up there with James Southerland as one of the conference’s top long-range shooters. The Scarlet Knights have definitely benefited from letting Carter and Mack handle the scoring responsibilities rather than relying on unskilled bigs like Gilvydas Biruta and Dane Miller to shoulder the load offensively as they did in the past.

Rutgers’ vulnerability can be traced to its frontcourt, which is a bit of an odd departure because we’re used to seeing the Scarlet Knights being a team that battles down low and forces opponents to operate from the inside out rather than from the outside into the paint. Wally Judge has his battles with foul trouble, a problem that has plagued him even going back to his time at Kansas State, but it hasn’t been as big a hindrance as it has been in the past for him. He’s committed at least four fouls in five of his 11 games, but when he can stay on the court, he’s a good bet to make a run at a double-double. He also has to do a better job holding onto the ball for Rutgers to be successful.

Kadeem Jack is another Rutgers big man who is talented, but has struggled with consistency. As we’ve all come to expect, it’s very difficult for guys with size to be successful as underclassmen in the Big East, but Jack has played well, if only sporadically. Rice would probably like to see him do a better job attacking the glass – at 6’9″, Jack tallies just 3.7 boards per game – but like Judge, the Orange will have to respect his size from a matchup standpoint.

Who’s Hot

G Eli Carter – Averaging 18.5 points over his last four contests, with just two turnovers in his last two games

F Dane Miller – Posted 18 points and 5 assists (both season-highs) in Rutgers’ last game against Rider

F Wally Judge – Averaging 10 points and six rebounds over his last three games.

Who’s Not

G Myles Mack – Scored just one point in Rutgers’ win over Rider after scoring at least 13 in each of the team’s previous nine games.

G Jerome Seagears – Shooting just 26.8% from the floor and 20% from three-point range this season

G Mike Poole – 7-21 FG over his last four games

F Malick Kone – Has scored just 21 points in seven games after erupting for 17 against Boston University

Bottom Line

Tonight’s game should be a solid test for Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and Trevor Cooney as the Orange continue look to build on an excellent showing against Central Connecticut State on Sunday. Down low, I don’t expect Rakeem Christmas and Dajuan Coleman to look great against a formidable back line, but it’s important that they don’t completely disappear, as Judge, Jack and senior Austin Johnson will have a clear size advantage against Baye Moussa Keita.

It may be worth noting that whereas the Orange have had just two days to prepare for the Scarlet Knights, Rutgers hasn’t played since December 28. Whether that advantage in prep time will be noticeable is anyone’s guess, but it could be a factor as Rutgers looks to pull the upset. There aren’t many backcourts in the Big East better than the Scarlet Knights’ duo, but unfortunately for them, Syracuse has one of them. I look for SU to win a battle of very good guards, but it will be closer than many SU fans would normally expect.

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