Pregame Party: Georgetown v. Syracuse

USA TODAY Sports

Can Hoyas make it nine straight and shut down the Carrier Dome?

First place in the conference. An eight-game winning streak. Bragging rights in a classic rivalry. Commemorative T-Shirts. A lot is on the line when your Georgetown Hoyas make their last conference trip to the Carrier Dome to face the hated Syracuse Orange. So do they stand a chance? Let's get to it.

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. Coming off last year's Elite Eight appearance, Syracuse had a daunting task: replace three starters and their sixth man extraordinaire, Dion Waiters. But with plenty of talent returning and more high-profile recruits arriving, Syracuse expected to reload rather than to rebuild.

For the most part, those expectations have been met, as Syracuse currently has a top-ten ranking and a share of the Big East lead. An otherwise typically soft non-conference schedule was dotted with trips to San Diego and Arkansas, both wins, and plenty of one-sided wins over lesser fare. Big East play began with six straight Orange wins, most impressively a two-point win at then-No. 1 Louisville.

But this impressive narratives had a few cracks. The City of Brotherly Love hates Orange, apparently: an otherwise middling Temple squad picked apart Jimmy Boeheim's vaunted zone at Madison Square Garden in December; later on, Villanova dealt Syracuse a then-stunning upset in to hand the Orange their first conference loss. Additional losses at Pittsburgh and Connecticut followed, eliminating Syracuse's lead at the top of the conference standings.

There also have been personnel issues, a seemingly annual occurrence. Senior James Southerland was suspended for a total of six games for academic reasons, while freshman post DaJuan Coleman has missed six straight games with a knee injury that required surgery and is unlikely to play Saturday. Even so, Syracuse enters Saturday in a tie with Marquette and your Hoyas at the top of the Big East standings.

Orange to Know. The Syracuse back-court is talented but, unlike last year, not particularly deep. One familiar name is senior guard Brandon Triche (14.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.4 stl pg) who, after three years as a contributor, has become the team's leading scorer. Triche has received comparatively little attention, though, as the spotlight instead has settled on his back-court mate, sophomore Michael Carter-Williams (12.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 8.0 apg, 3.1 stl pg). Carter-Williams is a long, talented distributor who has compensated for an errant shot with plenty of volume and exceptional passing. He also has sticky fingers, both on defense, where he snags three-plus steals per game, and off the court.

The front court includes a number of long athletes that perform different roles. Junior C.J. Fair (14.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.1 stl pg), along with Carter-Williams, has been benefited from roster turnover, as Fair has graduated from role player to borderline star. Fair has developed the occasional outside shot, but still thrives attacking the rim and in transition. James Southerland (13.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.4 stl pg, 38.1 3FG%) is the far more frequent long-range sniper, but has come off the bench since his return from academic suspension. Instead, freshman Jerami Grant (5.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg) has started opposite Fair, though he often doesn't play starter's minutes. Inside, sophomore Rakeem Christmas (6.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.1 blk pg) is a rim protector on defense. Off the pine, guard Trevor Cooney is a shooter whose shot has been off, while forward Baye Keita (3.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.1 blk pg) spells Christmas with reserve rebounding and shot-blocking.

When Syracuse Has the Ball.

  • Orange's strength: guard play. While Syracuse's defense pretty much always looks the same, the offense's particular strengths and weaknesses change from year to year. Just a few years ago, the Orange were sniper-heavy , as Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins, and a freshman Triche all shot 40 percent or better from three. Now, Syracuse is a below-average outside shooting team, and makes up for inaccurate shooting by generating a lot of extra shots. The Orange do so by grabbing lots of their own misses (more on that within) but also by protecting the ball, turning it over on barely 16 percent of possessions in conference play. Having Carter-Williams helps, but so does the steady veteran Triche.
  • Hoyas' strength: contesting every shot, especially from three. As mentioned, the Orange are just a middle-of-the-pack shooting bunch this year. They particularly struggle from three, where Southerland's accuracy (38 percent) is negated by the high volume and lower accuracy of Carter-Williams and Triche (combined 30 percent from three on more than 8 attempts per game). As Luke Winn detailed here, when it comes to Syracuse jump-shooting, there's Southerland, and then there's everyone else. As it happens, your Hoyas hold their opponents to the lowest shooting percentage in the conference, particularly from three, where opponents make just 26 percent of attempts. Marking Southerland will be essential, but so will playing the same brand of tough defense Georgetown has throughout this streak.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Offensive rebounds. Syracuse's season-long statistics suggest an elite offensive rebounding unit, as the Orange have gathered over 40 percent of their own misses, the fifth-best mark in the country. But they have ranked just fourth in the conference, in part attributable to Coleman's absence down low. Nevertheless, Christmas, Keita, and Grant all are long athletes that will crash the offensive glass. Georgetown has been a bit too permissive on the defensive boards of late, and has to crack down Saturday to have a chance.
    • Transition opportunities. Historically, the Orange have turned defense into offense, using their 2-3 zone to force turnovers that lead to easy transition baskets. Limiting those turnovers, but also hustling back in transition, will be imperative.
    • Foul trouble. Even in the walkover against DePaul, Georgetown found itself in some early foul trouble, with Mikael Hopkins attracting three quick whistles. Syracuse doesn't rack up fouls on its opponents at a high rate, but home cooking and a couple of unnecessary reaches by your Hoyas could make things difficult.

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • Hoyas' strength: ball movement. Georgetown's ball movement has steadily improved throughout the season, as the offense has focused more on Otto Porter, Markel Starks, and Nate Lubick, while the ball has moved more freely to open shooters. Quick ball rotations will be essential Saturday to stay one step ahead of the swarming Syracuse zone.
  • Orange's strength: forcing turnovers. That zone has been tough as ever this year. Some zones merely pack it in, waiting out opposing offense and betting on a lazy, long jump shot. The Orange employ a more aggressive style, hounding ball handlers and jumping passing lanes. Syracuse forces turnovers on more than 23 percent of opponents' possessions, the second-best mark in the conference and near the top nationally.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Finishing inside. Syracuse also is extremely tough at the rim, where the orange block a higher percentage of shots than any team in the country. Christmas and Keita block more than three shots per game between them, but Grant and Southerland also swoop in for the occasional rejection. To again crib from Winn, the fact that several different Orange are capable shot-blockers is what puts them at the tops in that category nationwide.The Hoyas, without a tall post who finishes at the rim, have been stuffed repeatedly by rim protectors on St. John's and Cincinnati.
    • Offensive rebounding. Zone defense often makes defensive rebounding more difficult, and Syracuse is no exception, as the Orange rate just 12th in the conference in protecting the defensive glass, and below 200th nationally. Georgetown isn't a great offensive rebounding team but has proven opportunistic, generating plenty of second chances in recent games against St. John's, Rutgers, and to a lesser degree Marquette. A few extra rebounds could go a long way Saturday.
    • Finding the zone's seams. Georgetown should have ways to crack the Syracuse zone Wednesday. Lubick, Porter, and Starks all could be used in creative ways, flashing to the middle of the zone, patrolling the baseline, or cutting in from the wing. Whether the young Hoyas react quickly and decisively to the shifting zone despite their lack of experience is another matter, as initial reactions to the zone often include paralysis and resignation to the perimeter.

Prediction. Any good Odyssey involves a trip to the underworld, so it makes sense that the Hoyas should put their winning streak to the test at Syracuse. Trips to the Carrier Dome rarely end well; the Hoyas' 2011 win there is the only of its kind in the JTIII era, and the last time an opponent won at Syracuse. This year, the Orange are as good as ever, making the task that much more difficult. My heart says that the team that has proven its mettle time and again during this winning streak will do so again, pulling off an improbable upset in a hostile environment. A different version of these Hoyas came close last year, taking the Orange to the wire and beyond before falling. My head says things will be similarly close this year, but that the Hoyas will have to wait for CXIV to get their win. Syracuse 62, Georgetown 59.

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