Saddle Up: What's wrong with Syracuse?

February, 4, 2013
2/04/13
12:20
PM ET
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.

Notre Dame at No. 6 Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN

So what’s wrong with Syracuse? And how will its flaws impact Monday’s matchup against the Fighting Irish?

Well, it starts with Michael Carter-Williams, one of the most potent point guards in the country. In back-to-back losses to Villanova and Pitt, he wasn’t the smooth conductor he’d been throughout the season.

He’s 7-for-29 in Syracuse’s past two games. (#PointGuardProblems.) Any player can have an off night or two, but MCW’s issues are complicated by the absence of versatile forward James Southerland. Carter-Williams is trying to do more offensively to make up for the loss of a key component in Jim Boeheim’s starting rotation.

With Southerland, Cuse had a player who was a matchup challenge for most opponents. He’s shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc, so it’s not surprising that Syracuse has struggled from the 3-point line in its past two games.

The team is 8-for-28 from beyond the arc in that stretch. It’s 11th in the Big East with a 30.8 percent clip from the 3-point line.

Cuse will face a Notre Dame squad that wasn’t exactly flawless against DePaul on Saturday. The Blue Demons featured five double-figure scorers in that game. The Fighting Irish -- led by Jack Cooley’s monster 26-point, 16-rebound, 3-block effort -- finished them off in overtime.

But that weekend matchup -- much like Cuse’s against Pitt -- revealed some of Notre Dame’s flaws, too. And most of them are on defense. The Fighting Irish can score with anyone.

Cooley, Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins lead a unit that ranked eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. But the Fighting Irish also are 180th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

A struggling offense against a struggling defense. That’s the makeup of a game with major Big East implications. Syracuse entered the week tied atop the standings with Marquette. Four teams -- Cincinnati, Georgetown, Notre Dame and Louisville -- have 6-3 records. Connecticut is 5-3, while Pitt and St. John’s are 6-4.

As much as this league appeared to be locked into a Louisville-or-Syracuse race as the conference season began, the hunt for the Big East title has not played out that way. It’s tight at the top. So every win -- especially in a game between two legit contenders -- is meaningful.

If Notre Dame watched Pitt slice up Cuse’s 2-3 zone this past weekend, it will attack the middle of the scheme via Atkins’ speed and ask Cooley to push Rakeem Christmas & Co. around the paint. Pitt won with balanced performances from its guards and bigs. Notre Dame will need the same to win at Syracuse on Monday.

But Cuse is still one of the strongest teams in the country, and the Orange are just as versatile as any other team in the league. Boeheim’s squad is a high-level defensive group. And its depth allows it to bring talented scorers off the bench -- although DaJuan Coleman’s knee injury affects that depth.

The bottom line is that both of these teams are chasing the Big East crown. And this is a significant matchup for that pursuit.

No idea who will win this one. I like both squads for different reasons.

But if I were you, I’d get some popcorn ready.

Elsewhere: Oklahoma at Iowa State is an important matchup for a couple of Big 12 teams aiming to remain in the at-large conversation. Oklahoma has an RPI of 23. Iowa State is at 36 after a weekend victory over Baylor. And although Kansas is still the best team in the conference, the Jayhawks’ Saturday home loss to Oklahoma State encouraged the idea that the Big 12 may not be a one-team showcase. … Seton Hall at Pitt is interesting just because we’ve watched so many teams go from weekend glory to midweek disappointment recently. Sure, Pitt is the better team, and it’s expected to beat a Seton Hall squad that has lost its past three games. But the Panthers can’t assume anything. … Then there’s Texas at West Virginia. Remember how interesting that matchup appeared to be … four months ago? Not so much today.
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