College Basketball Nation: Andy Rautins

Summer Buzz: Syracuse Orange

August, 2, 2010
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subjects? Butler and Syracuse. (For today's take on Butler, click here.) Up next? Georgetown.

2009-10's Syracuse season opened with a whimper. It ended with a Sweet Sixteen loss to Butler. But between those low lights -- an exhibition loss to the mighty LeMoyne Dolphins and an offensively dormant upset at the hands of an elite Butler defense -- the Orange were as consistently good as any team in the country.

A few months removed from that brilliant effort, it's easy to forget that most people didn't project Syracuse as a top 25 team, let alone a national title contender. The departures of Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris made most onlookers assume the Cuse would go through the typical big-program standby year while coach Jim Boeheim's talented recruits figured out the Big East for themselves.

Of course, that's because we didn't know about Wes Johnson, the Iowa State transfer whom Boeheim oh-so-accurately predicted as a top 10 draft pick back when the rest of us were bleating, "Wes who?" Boeheim was right. Johnson was that good. And combined with the strong interior play of Arinze Onauku and Kris Joseph, the deadly accurate shooting of Andy Rautins, and the always-tricky 2-3 zone, Syracuse was very much a member of the elite.

With Johnson, Rautins, and Onauku gone, Syracuse loses its second Big Three in two years. But this time, most college hoops fans shouldn't be so eager to write the Orange off.

Why? Because the 2010-11 Orange could do the same thing the 2009-10 Orange did: Absorb talented, veteran losses, incorporate newcomers seamlessly, and enjoy yet another year at the top of the college hoops dogpile.

Much of that will come down to the play of Boeheim's much-touted newcomers. Seven-foot, 274-pound Brazilian Fabricio Melo -- heretofore and forever known as "Fab," which is about as awesome a nickname as you can ask for -- is the No. 1 center in the class of 2010. At this point in his development, Melo specializes in low-post scoring, meaning he could be the perfect replacement for the efficient Onauku.

Whether Syracuse can weather the loss of Johnson on the defensive end -- who led the Cuse in defensive rebounding rate last season and posted a 5.7 percent block percentage, second only on the team to bench forward Rick Jackson -- will hinge on whether Melo can shorten his learning curve considerably and use his size to dominate the middle of Syracuse's zone in year one.

Melo has been getting much of the Syracuse-related recruiting attention, but there's also Dion Waiters, the No. 2 shooting guard in the incoming class. According to ESPNU's scouts, Waiters is already an elite offensive threat who attacks the rim with impressive explosion and body control.

There are a few key stats the Orange must approximate if they want to have a repeat of last year's season. The biggest is shooting: With a team effective field goal percentage of 57.6, Syracuse was the second-best shooting team in the country in 2009-10. It wasn't hard to see why: Johnson and Rautins were hyper-efficient shooters from the perimeter, while Onauku and Kris Joseph pounded the ball inside and scored from under the hoop. (I'd love to see a highlight reel of baskets from four feet or less by Syracuse last year. Sometimes, watching the Cuse play felt like watching that reel.) That dynamic attack made Syracuse the eighth-most efficient offense in the country.

Melo should help where the latter is concerned. For the former, Syracuse's ability to stay versatile from the wing -- and to make a few buckets from beyond the arc -- will have to come by committee. Brandon Triche and Mookie Jones both shot a higher FG percentage than Johnson last season; Jones actually shot better than every other Orangeman save Onuaku. (Yes, including Rautins.) Triche and fellow backcourt mate Scoop Jardine appear poised to start together, with Jardine at the point and Triche in the Rautins-esque shooting combo role. If Waiters can provide shooting of his own, Syracuse should be able to keep their jump-shooting game in the same ballpark as last season's impressive effort.

There's no getting around the fact that Syracuse lost much of its attack this spring. Johnson was an NBA-ready talent with versatility to spare. Rautins, though prone to turnovers, was a hot shooter who kept the Syracuse offense humming. Onuaku made the most of his touches in the lane. All three did different things; all three contributed in big ways to the team's success.

But there's a sneaky little fact about Syracuse's efficiency profile: Three of the team's top four possession contributors return in 2010. Those three are Jardine, Triche, and Jones. All three will feature prominently in the new look Cuse, and all three have skill sets that can combine to make up what Syracuse lost in the backcourt departures of Rautins and Johnson.

Factor in a pair of top-level recruits, including one that should help shore up the loss of Onuaku in the post, and it would almost be surprising if Syracuse didn't succeed in the coming season. They may not be as good as last year's team. We might not be fitting Syracuse for a No. 1 seed come March. But none of Syracuse's personnel losses are devastating or irreplaceable, especially not on a team this deep and talented.

The Big Three is gone -- again -- but Syracuse can adapt. Boeheim's program is humming. Warning to the college hoops minds of the world: Don't leave Syracuse out of your top 25 this time.
The departure of Andy Rautins from last year's ruthlessly effective Syracuse backcourt leaves a big hole to fill. Who's going to fill it? The key names are no surprise: There's Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Mookie Jones, as well as 6-foot-4 shooting guard Dion Waiters, the No. 2-ranked off-guard in the incoming class.

It's a bit of a tricky situation: Boeheim will likely want to find minutes for Waiters, but he also has two very capable and experienced guards in Jardine and Triche, both of whom played big minutes last year. Triche started at point guard. Jardine came off the bench. Both contributed in big ways.

What does Jardine think about all this? So glad you asked. Jardine thinks that by the time the season rolls around, Triche will move over to shooting guard, and he (Jardine) will assume point guard responsibilities. From an interview with Yahoo!'s Jason King:
“We were on the court together a lot last year,” Jardine said. “I know how to get him going and he knows how to get me going. It’s going to be a great backcourt."

The move makes sense. Jardine is more of a natural point guard, and it's not hard to picture Triche running off screens and hitting open shots at a high rate. Even if both players were identical, sometimes you have to throw positional rigidity out the window. Sometimes you need to put your best two players in your backcourt, even if some of their skills overlap. There's nothing wrong with a doubling down on combo guards. They're combo guards for a reason.

Anyway, throw in Waiters and Jones, and Scoop is absolutely right: That is going to be an awfully good backcourt.

MSU-Butler halftime analysis

April, 3, 2010
INDIANAPOLIS -- We're halfway through what's thus far been an up-and-down game -- a torrid start followed by a major drought in the closing stretches. Fittingly enough, we're tied at 28. Here's some instant reaction and a look ahead to the second half:

HOW THE HALF WAS WON: Butler's guards couldn't contain Korie Lucious and Durrell Summers. The Bulldogs have been shutting down great guards throughout the tournament, holding Syracuse's Andy Rautins and Kansas State's Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente to minimal contributions in low-scoring games. Not so in the first half tonight. Lucious and Summers were able to find open looks, and for much of the half, they knocked them down.

TURNING POINT: With two minutes left in the first half, it looked like Butler was starting to fade. They couldn't get a bucket, and they had just been victimized by a perfect Lucious bounce pass through their defense, which Summers finished in stride for an easy layup and a 28-23 lead. But with 30 seconds left, Shelvin Mack caught the ball on the wing in the break and iced a 3, the Bulldogs' first since the four-minute mark, and their first non-Hayward bucket since there were eight minutes remaining.

PLAYER OF THE HALF: Gordon Hayward, Butler -- 13 points, three rebounds. Hayward's was 5-of-9 shooting -- including a barrage of 3s and one spinning fadeaway that had to make the NBA scouts in the house drool -- keeping Butler close throughout the first half. The Bulldogs weren't particularly bad from the field. But if Hayward hadn't made a few key 3s, the Spartans could have opened a lead in their torrid first few minutes.

PLAYER OF THE HALF II: Lucious of Michigan State -- eight points, one rebound, three assists, one steal. The aforementioned Lucious didn't just score and needle gorgeous bounce passes through Butler's vaunted defense. He also -- and most importantly -- didn't turn the ball over. Butler has been great at turning its opponents over in its run to the Final Four, but Lucious handled the ball well and Michigan State didn't waste any possessions against the grind-it-out Bulldogs.

STAT OF THE HALF: Offensive rebounds. Butler was never going to dominate Michigan State on the offensive glass, but the Bulldogs were almost invisible after their shots hit the rim. Butler grabbed three of their misses, good for a paltry 17.6 percent from the field. Butler doesn't need to grab many rebounds; Stevens prefers his guys get back and set up that difficult defense rather than crash the glass on the offensive end. But it wouldn't hurt for Butler to preserve a few more of their possessions in the second half.

STAT OF THE HALF II: Fouls. There were lots of them for both teams, a combined 16 total. Michigan State committed nine of those fouls, and Raymar Morgan got three of them, an affliction that caused him to miss much of the first half. The referees seem dedicated to keeping this game relatively free of overwhelming physicality, so Morgan will have to be especially careful in the early moments of the second.

1. Hayward has to keep attacking the rim. Michigan State is struggling to match up with him, and with Morgan in foul trouble there's no one that should be able to stop him.
2. You too, Shelvin Mack. Don't settle.
3. Butler has to figure out a way to close down on Lucious, Summers, and the rest of Michigan State's athletic guards better. Butler got here by dominating its opponents on the perimeter, by making everything difficult, by forcing turnovers. That hasn't happened tonight.

1. Get lots of help on Hayward. You don't want to give up too many open looks, but rotating away from any non-Mack shooters in Butler's lineup is a pretty safe bet. Smart rotations could negate Butler's most effective player without revealing too many holes elsewhere.
2. Keep hitting shots. Simple, but true. It's hard to get good interior looks on Butler's defense. The help is too good. If the shots stop falling, some of that vaunted offensive rebounding wouldn't hurt.
3. Attack Matt Howard. Butler has been able to play without Howard in the past, but his rebounding would be a major boost on offense, and if MSU can keep him foul trouble, they can continue to dominate the glass.
Butler CelebrationAP Photo/Colin E. BraleyButler celebrates an unexpected victory over Syracuse and Brandon Triche.
Really, it's our own fault. We should have known.

After four days of basketball that gave us a dozen thrilling games, a handful of Cinderellas, and one of the most shocking upsets of all time, we, the college basketball-watching masses, should have taken a long collective look in the mirror and admitted the cold, hard truth: We don't know anything. Instead, we went with what we thought we knew. Syracuse was too good. Butler didn't match up. If any game was ripe for a Sweet 16 upset, it was Saint Mary's-Baylor, or Cornell-Kentucky.

We were wrong. Again.

Butler wasn't blown out. It wasn't exposed by the bigger, badder, more athletic Orange. Quite the opposite: The Bulldogs came out of the gate hot, rode what looked to be a definitive Syracuse run, turned the game around in the last two minutes, and completely altered the look of the 2010 NCAA tournament. Again.

Syracuse will be kicking themselves for the loss, not only because Jim Boeheim's team was clearly the more talented, but also because outside of the first 10 minutes, Butler didn't even play all that well. The Bulldogs shot 40 percent from the field and 25 percent from behind the arc, 10 percentage points worse than their season average. If you had bet Syracuse fans that Butler would make one of every four 3-pointers it shot over that Orange zone, would score 63 points, and would win ... well, I'm betting Syracuse fans take that bet.

Masochist Syracuse partisans -- and guard Andy Rautins -- will especially obsess over the final five minutes of the game, when Syracuse had built a four-point lead and looked primed to finally assert its superiority. Then Rautins turned the ball over, Ronald Nored hit a 3 to cut the lead to one, Matt Howard scored inside, Rautins turned the ball over again, Willie Veasley hit a 3, and then bam: 58-54 Butler, just like that. Butler extended its lead to 61-54, and Syracuse never got close enough to pull even again.

It was a brilliant upset, not only because Butler looked the better team for much of the night -- credit Butler's defense, which was ferocious -- but because the Bulldogs flipped the script when it mattered most. They didn't cede to the athletic team running at them on every possession. They didn't shake their heads at what looked to be a focused Syracuse team closing the door down the stretch. They regrouped, made two huge shots and closed out a win that was rightfully theirs. You had to have seen the game to believe it -- and also to realize how unlikely it all seemed.

Tonight's other early game pitted one of the hottest teams in the country, Washington, against a West Virginia team reeling from the loss of its starting point guard and a not particularly pretty performance in a win over Missouri in the second round. West Virginia was still the favored team -- too much talent, too much height -- but the consensus had shifted. Washington could win this thing. West Virginia is vulnerable.

That consensus wasn't anywhere near as codified as Syracuse-over-Butler, but it existed. West Virginia proved it wrong.

Without Darryl Bryant, the Mountaineers weren't exactly careful with the ball -- they committed 23 turnovers and looked truly sloppy doing so -- but what West Virginia lacked in care it more than made up for with a smothering 1-3-1 zone defense and a typically prodigious number of offensive rebounds (18, to be exact). Washington was more than happy to help the cause, giving the ball away 22 times; it's an obvious point, but committing 23 turnovers isn't that big of a deal when your opponent gives all but one of them right back.

That said, this turnover thing is a concern for the Mountaineers going forward. West Virginia has won this year thanks to offensive rebounding and low turnover counts. If this is the way WVU will take care of the ball without Truck Bryant, well, that's a problem. Rather than a trend, maybe it was merely a symptom of an intentionally ugly, grind-it-out game with a pressing, harassing team. West Virginia, which will likely play Kentucky in the Elite Eight, won't have time to find out.

The real story from tonight's first session wasn't that West Virginia won ugly, though. It was that Butler won at all. It's official: Doubt Butler -- or any other supposed underdog in this tournament -- at your own peril. We ought to learn our lesson.
SALT LAKE CITY -- Butler handled No. 1-seeded Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense just fine in the first half of Thursday night's West Regional semifinals at EnergySolutions Arena.

It was the Orange who couldn't solve the No. 5-seeded Bulldogs' defense.

Buoyed by Syracuse's 12 turnovers in the first 20 minutes, Butler took a 35-25 lead over Syracuse at the half. It is the Orange's largest halftime deficit of the season -- they trailed by five points at the half in a 99-85 win at Providence on Feb. 23 -- and it's only the fourth time they have trailed at the half all season.

Butler, which has the country's longest winning streak at 22 consecutive games and hasn't lost since Dec. 22, is seeking its first trip to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight.

Syracuse didn't take care of the basketball, and Butler's Ronald Nored hounded Andy Rautins from the opening tip, disrupting the Orange offense.

Butler shot 40 percent against Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone in the first half, making 12 of 30 shots. The Bulldogs were only 3-for-13 on 3-pointers, but they took nine more shots and had only two turnovers in the half.

Sophomore guard Shelvin Mack led the Bulldogs with 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting. Butler took a 10-point lead at the half even after stars Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard were relatively quiet. Hayward scored only five points on 1-for-2 shooting, and Howard had five points on 1-for-6 shooting.

Junior Wes Johnson led Syracuse with six points and seven rebounds.
Three things to watch is a quick preview of the NCAA tournament's second weekend. It is exactly what it says it is.

Thursday games in Salt Lake City: No. 5 Butler vs. No. 8 Syracuse, 7:07 p.m. ET and No. 6 Xavier vs. No. 2 Kansas State, 9:37 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeJordan Crawford
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNext up for Xavier? Kansas State, on Thursday night.
Thing One: Jacob Pullen vs. Jordan Crawford. If you thought last week's matchup was a challenging one for Kansas State's guards, welcome to the Sweet 16. This week, the Wildcats will face one of the hottest players in all of college basketball, Crawford. (If they manage to contain Crawford and beat Xavier, Kansas State will likely be awarded with the honor of trying to guard Andy Rautins and Wes Johnson, which, yikes. But let's focus on the Sweet 16 for a second.) Crawford averaged 27 points in his first two tournament games against Minnesota and Pittsburgh. At Indiana, Crawford was a paragon of potential without much polish; in his second year since transferring, he's turned that potential into a complete offensive game. He's nearly impossible to stop. Then again, we would have said the same thing about BYU's Jimmer Fredette, who spent much of the season having his way with opposing guards only to be contained by Pullen in the second round. Pullen pulled double-duty in Kansas State's win, defending Fredette on one end and contributing an efficient 34 points on the other. Pullen v. Crawford. It sounds like a Supreme Court case. Instead, it's one of the best guard match ups you'll see all tournament. Don't miss it.

Thing Two: Hey, man, slow down. If Butler has any hope of beating No. 1-seed Syracuse in Thursday's early game, they have to slow the ball down. Like, big-time. The Bulldogs don't much care for a fast-paced game anyway -- they average 64.8 possessions a game, good for 275th in Division I -- and this proclivity for sloth could mitigate some of the Bulldogs' other disadvantages. The last thing Butler will want to see is Syracuse's long zone getting into passing lanes, creating turnovers, and getting easy buckets. Or, almost as bad, getting lots of long rebounds and run-outs into the secondary break. Rautins loves the secondary break. The goal for Brad Stevens' team is simple: Get the ball into the middle of the zone. Don't turn it over. Get genuinely open looks from outside. Make them. And, for the love of Hinkle Fieldhouse, slow down.

Thing Three: Fortunately, this sort of slow pace will be a little bit more advantageous for Butler with Arinze Onuaku still out of Syracuse's lineup. Butler's task is hard enough. With Onuaku out of the middle of the lane, that slow-it-down-and-get-it-inside strategy looks a little bit more viable; with Onuaku in the game, Syracuse is more than happy to play a bruising half-court style, and as good as Matt Howard is, it's hard to imagine him staying step-for-step with a healthy Arinze for 40 minutes.

But that's at all! Here's one bonus bold prediction from the West: Jordan Crawford has an off-night, going 6-for-24ish from the field, and Kansas State takes a surprisingly easy win on their way to the Elite Eight. What? I'm totally counting that as bold.

Final: Syracuse 87, Gonzaga 65

March, 21, 2010
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Some quick observations from a second-round game that looked a heckuva lot more like a 1-16 first-round game (somewhere Vermont is smiling for giving Syracuse a tougher game than the Zags).
  • Kentucky's dismantling of Wake Forest was impressive, but in my book, this was even more impressive. Playing with essentially five guys and a little bit of DaShonte Riley, Syracuse completely humiliated Gonzaga. Smoked 'em offensively, schooled 'em defensively. If anyone thought the injury to Arinze Onuaku took the Cuse out of the national championship derby, I'm guessing they're rethinking that now.
  • The fact that Wes Johnson is back to his old self is far more significant than the status of Onuaku's leg. Not to discredit the importance of Onuaku, but Johnson at his best means a lot more in the grand scheme of things for the Orange. And the way he played today -- 31 points on 11 of 16 shooting, 4 of 6 from the arc and 14 rebounds in 36 minutes -- should send out a flare to everyone else left in the bracket.
  • The Orange only go six deep without Onuaku but five of those six can dominate the game at any time. They practically took turns against Gonzaga -- Johnson to start, Brandon Triche midway through the first half, Andy Rautins to begin the second. Sprinkle in a little Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson and you realize just why this team is so hard to beat.
  • I'll be curious to see if Onuaku can play in Salt Lake City. That regional begins on Thursday and Onuaku hasn't practiced since injuring his leg against Georgetown more than a week ago. Do the Orange absolutely need him? Apparently not. Would it be good to have him when you push into the second weekend? Absolutely.
  • As for Gonzaga? Well the band was fun. Seriously, this is a team that can be fun to watch offensively but also is a team that was absolutely run out of the gym by Duke. Shouldn't be terribly surprising this happened. The Zags don't play enough defense which means when they can't shoot -- and they couldn't have scored with a ladder to the hoop against Syracuse -- they can't win.
NEW YORK -- Lacking a crystal ball, Dr. Irving Raphael wasn’t terribly interested in making a prediction about what an MRI will reveal on Arinze Onuaku’s right knee on Friday morning, but the Syracuse team doctor was cautiously optimistic.

“He’s in a lot of pain right now but the X-rays were negative,’’ Raphael said. “He’s had problems with his knees before. We won’t know until we look in there but I think the key here will just be rest and the trainers taking good care of him.’’

That may not be the answer Syracuse fans are looking for right now but considering how bad things looked when Onuaku went down, it’s about as good as the news can get.

The big man got twisted with Georgetown’s Greg Monroe going for a rebound under the Georgetown hoop and lay in agony on the floor. Onuaku eventually left the court under assistance and went directly to the locker room, with Big East asociate commissioner Dan Gavitt escorting Onuaku’s parents right to the locker room soon after.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim labeled the injury a "strain," but Raphael clarified that the injury was to Onuaku’s quad tendon, a problem that has plagued the senior his entire career. Onuaku missed his sophomore campaign after undergoing surgery on his left year.

Last year he played on a rapidly deteriorating and fraying quad tendon in his right knee. Surgery this summer alleviated the injury but took him out of conditioning commission.

Onuaku will fly home with his team in the morning and have the MRI in Syracuse.

“Just seeing him go down like that, it was hard to see,’’ Wes Johnson said. “It was especially hard for me because he’s my roommate.’’

No one in the Syracuse locker room was terribly interested in imagining an NCAA tournament without Onuaku.

“We’re only thinking positive things right now,’’ Scoop Jardine said.

When pressed players and coaches said with resolve that they had the makeup to continue without Onuaku if necessary.

“These aren’t the kind of guys who are going to fold or back down,’’ associate head coach Mike Hopkins said. “If he can’t go, they’ll use it as motivation.’

For the Orange, Onuaku’s injury comes with an especially cruel twist in timing. The quarterfinal game against Georgetown marked the first time that Johnson felt right since injuring his hand against Providence on Feb. 2. Unable to even pick up his laptop, he played in games when he could barely feel the ball in his hands.

Finally with ice, rehab and time Johnson fell back into his player of the year stride on Thursday, scoring 24 points.

“We’ve handled adversity before,’’ said Andy Rautins, who had his own bout, missing all of 2007-08 with a knee injury. “We covered for Wes with his hand. If he can’t play, I think we’re more than capable of stepping up without him.’’
LOUISVILLE -- More to come soon, but here are some quick postgame thoughts on Louisville's 78-68 win over No. 1 Syracuse:

  • The Cardinals closed out Freedom Hall in style, but most importantly, secured their place in the NCAA Tournament. They did it by beating Syracuse for the second time this year behind an unlikely hero, Kyle Kuric. The reserve sophomore had a career-high 22 points, all in the second half, as Louisville rallied from a five-point halftime deficit. No way could Jim Boeheim have seen that coming; in the Cardinals' win Valentine's Day win at the Carrier Dome, Kuric played only three minutes and scored no points.
  • Louisville won for the sixth straight time and seems to have Boeheim's 2-3 zone figured out. This time, Rick Pitino's team jacked up 40 three-pointers, and though they hit only 12 of them, they crashed the glass and outrebounded the Orange 42-36.
  • Syracuse senior Andy Rautins suffered through a miserable game, shooting just 1-for-9 and committing five turnovers.
  • One point of concern for Louisville: senior starting guard Jerry Smith injured his thumb on a first-half dunk and did not play the second half. His status for the Big East tournament is unclear at this point.

More to come ...

Syracuse dominates Villanova

February, 27, 2010
SYRACUSE -- Here's hoping the bartenders downtown are at the ready because they're about to get inundated with some very happy people.

And with good reason. Syracuse's domination of Villanova not only put the Orange in position to secure the Big East regular-season title but it showcased exactly how Syracuse is going to be an awfully tough out here in the next couple of weeks.

A few observations:

-- Pick your poison, name your player. The Orange can score inside, outside, with their starters and off the bench. Against Villanova, Syracuse took turns figuring out ways to dominate: Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph with the punch to start the game; Andy Rautins raining threes early in the second half and then Arinze Onuaku taking it inside late. It's why the Orange will be so hard to beat come March. They can mold their offensive game to beat whatever sort of team they face.

-- Villanova is going to need to fix a few problems as it goes forward. For starters, the Wildcats can't rely on Scottie Reynolds all the time. The senior can put the Cats on his back and has, but the rest of his team can't passively wait for him to do it. Villanova also has to find a way to get inside. The Cats just don't have enough reliable shooters to expect to beat people from the outside. Villanova also has to shore up its defense. This Cat team is never going to be great defensively but they have to find a way to get a little better in a hurry.

-- 34,616 people in a dome, smushed around a basketball court can be really loud. The expected record crowd didn't disappoint in intensity, noise and Orange-ness. My ears will be ringing until April.

Halftime: Syracuse 46, Villanova 36

February, 27, 2010
SYRACUSE -- A few thoughts as the deafening noise takes a little time off here in Orange County.

-- Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph ought to split any sixth man of the year award given out this year. The two, who have been sensational the entire season, have injected energy and aggressiveness to the Orange. Jardine has pushed the tempo and has 12 points. Joseph has attacked the rim and has added nine plus seven boards.

-- Red-hot from the arc to start the game, Villanova has become too reliant on its 3-point shot. The Wildcats, who opened 4-of-5, finished 5 of 18. That's way too many 3s. They need to get back to penetrating the zone as Corey Fisher did to start the game and they also need to push the ball again. Villanova doesn't really run much of a half-court offense and struggles when forced into one. The Cats managed just two field goals in the final 11:31, surrendering a 9-point lead.

-- Syracuse can't afford to get complacent here to start the second half. Villanova almost assuredly is going to mount some sort of charge and the Orange -- which has been known to let a lead or two slide -- needs to be ready for it. The Orange also would do well to get its two best players involved. Wes Johnson, maybe still bothered by his hand, hasn't been a dominant presence at all and Andy Rautins, swarmed the entire half, hasn't been able to contribute either. The two have taken four shots apiece and have a quiet eight points.

Halftime: Syracuse 44, Georgetown 31

February, 18, 2010
WASHINGTON D.C. -- Syracuse clearly isn't interested in yet another tight game. The Orange have blown the doors off Georgetown in the first half, putting up more points (44) in the first 20 minutes than anyone has this season against the usually stingy Hoya defense.

Syracuse is shooting a blistering 54 percent from the floor and has been impressive in mixing up the way it's getting its buckets. It's been a 20-minute reminder of just why this team is good enough to win a national championship. Andy Rautins -- all but shut down by Louisville -- got things rolling with 10 quick points, but when Georgetown started concentrating on the arc, the Orange dished inside to Rick Jackson or Wes Johnson drove to the hoop.

Georgetown, on the other hand, looks completely vexed by the Syracuse zone. The Hoyas have taken 10 free throws but Greg Monroe is responsible for all but two of them. That's because Georgetown has been taking low percentage shots and barely challenging the Orange inside. The Hoyas have only four points in the paint to 14 for Syracuse. Monroe has taken just one field goal. Mix in Austin Freeman's rough start (2-of-9) and it doesn't bode well for the Hoyas.

I'm curious to see if Syracuse, which has squandered big leads before, keeps its foot on the gas pedal in the second half or if Georgetown, which has been a second-half team all season (averaging 40 points in the second half to 33 in the first), will make this interesting.

Louisville stuns Syracuse

February, 14, 2010
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Since the New Year, the University of Louisville has played the part of Job with a Sisyphus complex.

The Cardinals dropped five of their eight games in January, including decisions made on questionable calls at both Seton Hall and West Virginia, to land themselves squarely on a very thin bubble.

Their response? A week into February they headed to New York with their coach, embattled in the summer after his indiscretion, now dodging rampant rumors that he would bolt the school for a job in the NBA at season’s end -- and get promptly humiliated by Big East underling St. John’s in what appeared to be a bubble-bursting loss.

[+] EnlargeMike Mara
Don McPeak/US PresswireMike Marra came off the bench to score 12 points for the Cardinals.
But the thing about Job and Sisyphus: they never quit. Job took on his suffering and Sisyphus stubbornly kept pushing that boulder up the hill.

Louisville finally inched the boulder in the right direction when the Cardinals stunned No. 3 Syracuse and 31,053 of its orange-loving Valentine’s Day fans, 66-60.

“We didn’t play well at St. John’s but they played great,’’ UL coach Rick Pitino said. “We thought we were going to win one or two of these road games. After we lost to St. John’s, I told the guys, ‘Which one would you rather have: St. John’s or Syracuse?’ Here’s your chance to beat a team that is top three in the nation and could win a national championship.’’

Telling and doing, however, are two different things. Yet the same Louisville team that has been equal parts perplexing and vexing played an intelligent and steady game from the opening tip.

The Cardinals, who have had a season-long case of the yips, didn’t blink when Andy Rautins nailed back-to-back 3-pointers to retake the lead late in the second half. They didn’t wilt when Jared Swopshire and Edgar Sosa both missed the front end of one-and-ones in the final minute, and they didn’t cave when, up just two, Rakeem Buckles turned the ball over under the Syracuse hoop, passing the ball out of bounds with 32 seconds left.

“We played a very intelligent game,’’ Pitino said.

Louisville also handed Syracuse a dose of its own medicine, going zone much of the game. And a team that is so good in its own zone was completely stymied at how to attack one.

Unable or unwilling to penetrate, the Orange instead jacked 19 3-pointers and made just five of them.

Player of the year candidate Wes Johnson had 14 points, but shot only 5-of-20 from the floor; Rautins managed just three 3-pointers

“We weren’t really aggressive until the end of the game,’’ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “The last few games, it’s been like that. We’ve managed to be tough and hang on to win the game, but you can’t be in all of these situations at the end of the game and think you’re going to win them all.’’

In the grand scheme of things, this shouldn’t affect Syracuse much at all. The Orange are 24-2 and would need a flat-out disaster to slide out of a No. 1 seed.

Still, around here there will be some serious hand-wringing, no doubt. Asked about the fretful fans, Pitino -- who has handled that sort of thing once or twice in his career -- chuckled.

“What is this, the Kentucky of the North?” he said. “We played a great team, and please remind your fans, the University of Louisville isn’t exactly chopped liver. There’s no reason to go jumping in the snow. Have a little vino and relax because Syracuse is a great, great team.’’

What will be interesting is what this does for Louisville. Long term, what’s most important is that the Cardinals’ young players performed particularly well. Mike Marra, who Pitino said is the best pure shooter he’s ever coached -- and that includes the likes of Travis Ford and Tony Delk -- nailed four 3-pointers off the bench, including a dagger trey with 1:28 left. Buckles chipped in a critical eight points and four rebounds, spelling Samardo Samuels when he got in foul trouble. And Samuels, inactive for much of the game, came on late with six critical points in the final three minutes.

But in the immediate future, what matters is Louisville’s NCAA outlook. It still isn't entirely clear. The Cards are 16-9 and 7-5 in the Big East, maybe with a huge win like this putting a little separation between themselves and Cincinnati and Marquette.

They have exactly zero wiggle room, though. Louisville should not lose to Notre Dame, DePaul, Connecticut or Marquette, and would help its cause tremendously if it could steal a home victory against either Georgetown or Syracuse.

“We know we are a good team,’’ Marra said. “We haven’t really caught a break all season, but this is exactly what we needed. Hopefully it will get the ball rolling.’’

Rolling uphill, that is.


DePaul welcomes streaking Syracuse

January, 30, 2010
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Oh, Stats LLC. You're so polite:

Syracuse leads the nation in field-goal percentage. DePaul ranks last in that department not only in the Big East, but also among teams that hail from major conferences. What appears to be a major mismatch is on tap Saturday at Allstate Arena when the fourth-ranked Orange try to win their eighth straight as they meet the Blue Demons.

Let me reword that slightly less carefully: Syracuse is one of the elite teams in the country, one or five or six capable of winning the NCAA tournament in two months, and DePaul is ... not. The Blue Demons are less an attraction here than a sideshow; the vibe in Allstate has the same feel as the open practices at NCAA regionals. "Oh, that's Wes Johnson. There's Rautins! Let's watch him shoot." Everyone is here to see the Cuse.

The major characters on hand should be obvious: There's Johnson and Andy Rautins and Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine and on down the line. I'll be interested in watching forward Arinze Onuaku, who just so happens to be the Syracuse career leader in field goal percentage. (Who knew?) Onuaku might be the key to Syracuse's NCAA chances -- he's a big man who can bang with the Cole Aldriches and Dexter Pittmans of the world. A matchup with DePaul's 6-foot-11 center Mac Koshwal should be the best watch of the game.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for live updates on this game and others throughout the day, and as always, check back later for some halftime thoughts and postgame up close with the Cuse.