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Last night, Ohio State shocked the country by pummeling Oregon to win the NCAA football championship, but what people don’t seem to realize is that an even more important title is on the line. That’s right, tonight when Syracuse and Wake Forest take to the court in the Carrier Dome, the 2015 Transitive Title Trophy will be up for grabs. Yes, Syracuse fans, that means that the real college football national championship will be determined on the hardwood.

Here’s how this year’s Transitive Title matchup was set up: early in the year, Virginia Tech defeated Ohio State. Virginia Tech then turned around and lost 6-3 against Wake Forest, in what nine out of 10 dentists agree was a game more painful than multiple root canals. And then, Wake Forest was thoroughly dominated by the Syracuse football team in one of the squad’s rare wins last season. That means that Wake Forest and Syracuse can both make a vicarious claim on the national title.

So who has a better claim? The degree of separation between Wake and Ohio State is smaller, though it’s hard to overlook the fact that Syracuse topped the Deacs 30-7 later in the season. And that’s why, tonight, the Transitive Title Trophy will be up for grabs and we’ll know once and for all which fanbase can celebrate a vicarious national championship.

This is all complicated and stupid, but that’s just keeping the spirit of the old BCS system alive and well. Now, on to the game.

It’ll be interesting to see how this game shakes out for Syracuse as they are forced to play without Chris McCullough and his blown out ACL for the first time. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Tyler Roberson has actually been outplaying McCullough for a few weeks now, so there really won’t be any dropoff when it comes to the new starting lineup.

Where McCullough’s absence will really be felt is when it comes to depth. Syracuse has basically been playing with a 6.5 man rotation for the last few weeks, and now the sixth man is thrust into the starting lineup. The half man (Buss Patterson) becomes the new sixth man, and BJ Johnson and Chino Obokoh – two guys who’ve barely left the bench over the last several games – need to be ready to play.

But what kind of team is Wake Forest? Well, the Demon Deacons are coming to the Carrier Dome for the first time in program history, and they’re bringing with them a 9-8 record, and a 1-2 mark in ACC play. Those records are a little deceptive, because this is a Wake team that gave both Louisville and Duke everything they could handle before the Cards and Blue Devils pulled away late.

Devin Thomas is the main man for Wake Forest, and the 6-foot-9, 255 pounder is going to be a handful for the suddenly thin front line of Syracuse. He’s had six double-doubles this season, including 17 points and 14 boards in the team’s recent win over Georgia Tech. He’s averaging 13.1 points and 9.7 boards, but in ACC action his numbers have been even better. Through the team’s first three conference games, he’s averaging 20.5 points and 8.8 boards. Needless to say, he has the ability to significantly influence the outcome.

Another potential issue for Syracuse to keep in mind is that Wake Forest gets to the free throw line a ton. They’re second in the country with 449 attempts, meaning they’re adept at drawing fouls. That could play a big factor against a Syracuse team that’s got such limited depth.

With McCullough out, and an expected larger role for BJ Johnson in particular, one of the primary concerns is how the Orange will function defensively. Johnson has had his struggles defending the wing of the zone, and how he’s able to adjust and grow into that position is going to be crucial not just for this game, but going forward.

As always, one of the main concerns when there are potential defensive lapses in the zone is three point shooting. Head coach Danny Manning’s team doesn’t shoot a ton of threes, attempting about 16 per game and hitting at a clip of 32.9%. For the sake of comparison, that’s pretty close to the same numbers as Syracuse, but a lot fewer attempts than their other opponents this season. On average, opponents have been firing up about 21 threes per game.

So who is most likely to get hot from outside? Mitchell Wilbekin has been by far the team’s top shooter, leading the team with 26 makes and hitting at a 44.8% rate. The 6-foot-2 freshman knocked down three first half treys in the win over Georgia Tech and has the range to cause trouble for the Orange tonight. After Wilbekin, Cornelius Hudson is the next likeliest candidate to make it rain, as he enters tonight’s game with 20 made threes and a percentage of 31.3%, while Darius Leonard enters the game hitting 32.6% from deep.

The Deacs have out-rebounded opponents by an average of nine boards per game, and have done some serious work on the offensive glass with about 12.5 per game. Three different players have at least 30 offensive boards, with Thomas obviously leading the way, while Dinos Mitoglou – a 6-foot-10 freshman from Greece – has pulled down 30 of his 80 total boards on the offensive end. Mitoglou is third on the team with 7.6 points, and in typical European fashion, he’s a big man who can stretch the floor. His overall shooting percentage of 41.8% is pretty embarrassing for a 6-foot-10 guy, but he’s stepped outside and knocked down 13 threes, albeit at a clip of just 28.3 percent.

One more name to keep an eye on is Codi Miller-McIntyre, a 6-foot-3 guard who is second on the team in scoring, averaging 12.6 points, and has added 5.3 boards and 3.8 assists per game. The physical lead guard has had some trouble putting the ball in the hole overall, with a field goal percentage of 41.8%, while shooting just 25.8% from three and 59.2% from the free throw line. Still, he’s the kind of tough, physical upperclassman who could give a young, occasionally lackadaisical ballhandler like Kaleb Joseph fits. 

Syracuse is favored by 5.5 points right now, which feels about right given the big unknown of how Syracuse will do against a physical, post oriented team in the wake of Chris McCullough’s injury. Still, playing at home and hopefully riding the continued improved play of Trevor Cooney, Michael Gbinije, Rakeem Christmas, and Tyler Roberson, this is a team that the Orange should be able to win to stay unbeaten in ACC play.

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