Orange Face Streaking Villanova In Return To Dome
Three games into conference play and the Orange are unblemished in the Big East, and have a pair of early road wins to hang their hats on. While none of SU’s conference opponents figure to finish in the top half, there haven’t been many such battles to this point elsewhere in the league, so SU is hardly alone. Both South Florida and Providence played the Orange closer than most fans would like to expect, and a few wrinkles have been exposed. Fortunately, it’s still January and there’s still time to straighten out the kinks.
In Villanova, SU faces a streaking but still mediocre squad. The Wildcats have reeled off seven straight wins, but against a mostly fluffy schedule. Early on, Villanova had some nice resume opportunities, but lost to Alabama, La Salle and Temple. Their best win is over Saint Joseph’s, but even they’re nothing to write home about, so if Villanova is to return to the NCAA Tournament, it will have to get there with a strong performance in conference play. They’re up against the wall to begin with, but the Wildcats caught a very tough scheduling break with the front end of its schedule. In the space of the next three weeks, Villanova’s slate consists of two games against Syracuse, tilts against Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame and a road game at Providence thrown in for good measure. For a team that skews towards the young side, the Wildcats would probably like to have more time to develop before going up against the powerhouses of the league, but they just don’t have that luxury this season.
The Wildcats’ big men, like the rest of the team, have played better as of late, but offense has largely been a struggle down low. JayVaughn Pinkston has started to emerge as a consistent scoring threat, averaging 17 points over his last six contests. Pinkston relies on a lot of close looks and uses his 260-pound frame to both create space and draw contact despite standing just 6’7″. Pinkston ranks second in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, but on the whole, he hasn’t lived up to the potential that was dropped on his shoulders when he was named a McDonald’s All-American back in 2010, though that’s not entirely his fault. Elsewhere, at 6’10” and 230 pounds, Daniel Ochefu has showed some promise, but he’s still a freshman big man in the Big East and we all know what that means. Rakeem Christmas will have to do a good job of defending without fouling, something he occasionally struggles with, to neutralize Pinkston.
The biggest reason why Villanova seems to give the Orange more trouble than most teams is because Jay Wright not only knows how to beat a zone, but he also usually has the talented shooters to pull it off. Whether it’s Scottie Reynolds, Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher or Dominic Cheek, it seems like there’s always been someone to give SU fits from deep. But after a disappointing campaign last season that saw the Wildcats finish 14th in the Big East in three-point percentage, they look like they have regained some of the stroke that made them so competitive in the 2000’s. Ryan Arcidiacono, a hometown guard around whom Wright is building the team, is a 34% shooter from three-point land, while James Bell leads the team at a 39.1% clip. Darrun Hilliard and Archraf Yacoubou also shoot it well enough that they have to be considered threats. To this point in conference play, SU has needed time to adjust to hot shooters like Eli Carter and Bryce Cotton, but it would be nice to see the Orange respect that part of the scouting report from the opening tip rather than after the first five or ten minutes.
Daniel Ochefu – Scored a career-high 12 points to go along with eight rebounds in Wednesday’s win over USF
Ryan Arcidiacono – Averaging 18 points over his last three games while shooting 42.8% from beyond the arc
JayVaughn Pinkston – Averaging 17.2 points over his last six games
Mouphtaou Yarou – Notched a 16/13 double-double in Wednesday’s win over USF.
James Bell – Shooting 35.7% from the floor over his last six games
Darrun Hilliard – Shooting 34.7% from the floor and 29.4% from beyond the arc for the season
The Bottom Line
The outcome of Saturday’s game, not surprisingly, will hedge on the performance of Villanova’s shooters. While the Wildcats have the arsenal to make the Orange pay for not closing out, SU opponents have made just 28% of their threes all season. Hitting threes isn’t simply important for Villanova to put points on the board, but they’ll also need to do so to open up opportunities for Pinkston and Mouphtaou Yarou. Villanova also rebounds well offensively, though I haven’t watched them enough to know if it’s simply from all the long rebounds that come from so many three-point attempts or if they’re just as adept at corralling the misses from inside as they are on the outside, so I’m interested in seeing how that aspect of the game shakes out. Also, for a team that shoots their fair share of threes, Villanova gets to the line quite a bit, and all of their regulars are shooting at least 65% from the stripe.
The Orange could use a more complete effort on offense after a couple troublesome performances on the road. While the team has seen some very strong outings from C.J. Fair and Rakeem Christmas as of late, Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams have been a touch too unsteady for my tastes, to say nothing of James Southerland’s roller-coaster season. The home court should help in that regard, but only one of Villanova’s last six opponents has topped the 65-point mark, so the Orange need to return to their habits of setting screens, freeing up opportunities and not forcing bad shots. On the other side of the court, while Villanova has shifted some of its focus back to the post, it still relies heavily on its guards to produce. Nonetheless, Saturday should be an interesting test as Rakeem Christmas, Southerland and Baye Keita (ok, hopefully Coleman for more than a few minutes) square off against Pinkston, Yarou and Ochefu.
Update: Before the game, it was announced that James Southerland will be ineligible until further notice, likely because of academics. Obviously, Southerland has played a major role for Syracuse despite coming off the bench. I’ll get into the pros and cons of Jim Boeheim running such a laissez-faire program, but on the court, Jerami Grant will likely be thrust into a more significant reserve role in Southerland’s stead. I’ve been a huge Grant fan for awhile, and I’m excited to see how he does, but at the same time, I’m not sure he’s ready for such a big adjustment so early. I think he’s versatile enough to give help defense on Villanova’s forwards and guard their shooters with his long arms, but I’m slightly worried about his inexperience being exposed when he has to play for longer stretches.