Pregame Party: Syracuse v. Georgetown III

Be Strong, Cahill - Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

One more time, under the Garden's bright lights

Again? Just six days after the game that was supposed to cap the Georgetown-Syracuse rivalry, the two teams will face off again in the Big East Tournament semifinals. Having beaten the Orange twice by double digits, can the Hoyas pull off the sweep? Let's get to it.

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. Wait, no it hasn't.Georgetown pummeled Syracuse 61-39 last Saturday, sending the Orange to their fourth loss in five games. After the Hoyas held his team to its lowest total under his supervision, Syracuse head coach/Satan's apprentice Jim Boeheim said that he was "ready to go play golf." But, absent Jordan-like stamina on the links, there was little time for golf and hoops, as Syracuse returned to action Wednesday in the Big East Tournament. A twelve-point win over the Pirates, followed by a three-point victory over Pittsburgh, suddenly switched the narrative: the Orange had found their offense, or so the story went. Will that hot shooting continue in the third Syracuse-Georgetown showdown?

Orange to Know. The recent two-game uptick features a resurgence by three players in particular. First, and most prominently, senior sharpshooter James Southerland (13.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.3 stl pg, 38.7 3FG%) has found his shooting stroke, nailing 12 of 15 three-pointers against the Pirates and Panthers. Second, senior guard Brandon Triche (14.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.3 stl pg), until recently mired in an extended slump that briefly made him into the personification of an Elliott Smith song, has broken out, averaging 14.5 points and two three-pointers per win. Finally, sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams (12.3 ppg, 7.8 apg, 4.7 rpg, 2.8 stl pg) has his passing groove back, handing out 21 helpers thus far in the tournament.

Up front, the Orange still feature forward C.J. Fair (14.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg), perhaps the team's most consistent producer, who still gets most of his offense going to the basket but is developing an outside shot. In the middle of the lane, Rakeem Christmas (5.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.0 blk pg) brings defense and rebounding but not much offense. Reserve post Baye Keita (3.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.0 blk pg), like Christmas, protects the rim and crashes the glass, and has played somewhat better in the last couple of days. Two more freshmen, forward Jerami Grant (4.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg) and guard Trevor Cooney (3.6 ppg) have seen little action since arriving at MSG.

When Syracuse Has the Ball.

  • Three things we've learned so far:
    • Force the Orange into the half court. Georgetown has averaged just 10 turnovers in its first two match-ups with Syracuse. That ball control has shut down the Orange's transition offense, which has averaged just 6.5 points off of live-ball turnovers and 42.5 points overall.
    • Outside shooting is streaky. Georgetown just beat a Cincinnati team that lives and dies by the three. Syracuse isn't quite so reliant on the deep ball, and isn't particularly accurate making under 30 percent of triples in conference play. But small sample sizes can produce crazy results. In two games against Georgetown, Syracuse has shot just 5 of 31 from deep, a scant 16 percent. In the past two wins, the Orange have made 21 of 34 three-pointers, an unsustainable 62 percent. Of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle: Georgetown's stingy defense will make three-point shooting difficult, but a rejuvenated Syracuse perimeter probably will make more than one out of every six triples. Keeping tabs on Fair, Triche, and especially the lately unconscious Southerland is particularly important.
    • Zone offense is shaky. Without outside shooting to stretch Georgetown's defense, Syracuse has struggled to get much going inside, where the Orange have shot just 41 percent from two-point range in the two contests against the Hoyas. Fair and Carter-Williams are the only two Orange to make multiple field goals in both games, and, more specifically, to make multiple two-point field goals in both games. Syracuse also has turned the ball over on 26 percent of possessions, a fatally high rate. Can the Hoyas keep forcing Orange miscues Friday night?
  • Two more things to watch:
    • Defensive rebounding. Even when their shots aren't falling and they're turning the ball over, the Orange can create offense by pounding the offensive glass. Syracuse rates fifth in the country in offensive rebounding, as the Orange grab fully forty percent of their own misses. Through two games, Georgetown has contained the damage, holding Syracuse to a pedestrian 34 percent on second chances.
    • Paint touches. Now preparing for Syracuse's zone for the third time in as many weeks, Georgetown knows better than anyone that the best way to beat a zone is to get inside of it. For Syracuse, this means finding ways for Carter-Williams and Triche to get into the lane to open up opportunities at the rim and on the perimeter. Through two games, the Hoyas have been able to limit the damage done by these guards.

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • Three things we've learned so far:
    • There are many ways to skin a cat. JTIII has used this phrase several times in different contexts. Here, it applies to the ways in which the Hoyas have manufactured offense against the Orange. At Syracuse, Georgetown leaned offensively on Otto Porter, who in a virtuoso performance poured in 33 of the team's 57 points. Last Saturday, Porter was just one of four Hoyas who scored in double-figures, as Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera combined for eight three-pointers that stretched the Orange zone to its breaking point.
    • Otto Porter, zone buster. Even without high-volume scoring, Porter was magnificent in the second match-up against Syracuse. He screened, passed, and moved to create windows of opportunity within the Orange zone, attracting and diverting the attention of multiple Syracuse defenders to open up shots for his teammates. When the Orange zone converged on him, Porter found fellow Hoyas at the rim and beyond the arc. Left with a bit of daylight, Porter comfortably hit jumper after elbow jumper.
    • Hard work pays off. The Hoyas worked assiduously to get their baskets against Syracuse. 18 assists on 21 baskets, multiple screens, cuts, and rapid ball movement, all contributed to offensive precision in the second match-up. That type of teamwork is not easy--the Orange zone invites indecision, resignation, and lazy perimeter jumpers--but it may be necessary to pull off the three-game streak.
  • Two more things to watch:
    • Perimeter shooting. Starks, DSR, Porter, and Trawick all have had their moments as outside shooters throughout the season. Three-point accuracy is necessary to some degree to keep the Orange zone honest. Georgetown will need to connect from deep again Friday.
    • Post offense. Through two games, Nate Lubick, Mikael Hopkins, and Moses Ayegba have averaged a combined 7 points, 13 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks. The rebounds are a healthy figure, though definitely helped by Ayegba's 10-rebound domination of the paint at Syracuse. But the Hoyas could use a bit of offense inside to help open up perimeter looks. Points at the rim are hard to come by against the best shot-blocking team in the country, but every little bit helps.

Prediction. This match-up feels more like this rivalry's coda than its climax. At this point, we each have written our own tribute to Georgetown-Syracuse twice over. We all feel seemingly bottomless disdain for Syracuse, and nostalgia for that disdain's imminent wane, but there are only so many ways to say it. Every anecdote, yarn, and fable from the past three decades has been hashed and rehashed. As a result, today's game feels like a typical Big East Tournament game: high-stakes March basketball, but not necessarily a chapter in a particular rivalry. The highlight reels of Michael Graham, Pearl Washington, Gerry McNamara, and now Otto Porter, all feel a bit tired, leaving only the action on the court.

This feeling, that it's just another March game, will last even after I see the first flash of orange, whether on a Syracuse player or on a resident of a penitentiary (that is, a former Syracuse player). While that vision still provokes a Pavlovian response in me, I'll still care far more about the action on the court, and what it means for Georgetown's fortunes this month, than I'll care about the Hoyas proving for a third time what they've proven twice already: they're decisively better than Syracuse. Those double-digit Hoya wins upset the story-boarded version of this final go-round, in which the teams split the first two games, setting up a dramatic rubber match in New York.

To be sure, the Orange will be revenge-minded Friday night, and have looked better over the past two days. Plus, the stands will be full of orange, turning this into a semi-home game for Syracuse. But don't get confused by the dual narratives of Syracuse's resurgence and Cashmere Wright/the Hoyas' squandered 16-point lead. Georgetown on balance was excellent yesterday, and even better just six days ago against this same Syracuse team. Nor have the Hoyas backed down in hostile arenas, picking up difficult road wins throughout the season, including in front of 35,000-plus Orange maniacs just three weeks ago.

Two Hoya teams in the past, including the 1984 national championship squad, have pulled off identical three-game sweeps of Syracuse. Can these Hoyas, masters of the improbable, do the same and advance to Saturday night? I say yes. Georgetown 56, Syracuse 54.

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