Hey, did you know that when Louisville Cardinals coach Rick Pitino was just starting out, Syracuse University coach Jim Boeheim gave him a job as an assistant coach? Did you know this happened on Pitino’s honeymoon? And did you know that the Boeheim’s and Pitino’s have occasionally vacationed together? Good, now that we’ve gotten those typical talking points out of the way, let’s get to the game between the Cardinals and the Orange – a game that represents one of Syracuse’s last, best chances to earn a true quality win in 2014-2015.
It’s not much of a secret that Rick Pitino has had Jim Boeheim’s number in recent years. In fact, over the last decade, Pitino has won nine of the 13 matchups, including seven of the last 10. That’s especially impressive when you consider how good Syracuse has been over the last few years, with a Final Four run and multiple 30-win seasons. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Pitino coaches an aggressive defensive style that puts constant pressure on ballhandlers, forces turnovers, and by Pitino’s own admission, probably gets away with a whole lot of fouls.
That’s the most troubling aspect of this game for Syracuse fans, because freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph – pressed into duty this year when Tyler Ennis left early for the NBA – has been a bit shaky against pressure defense. The good news is that Louisville guard Chris Jones has been suspended for tonight’s game, and potentially beyond.
That’s a pretty major blow for the Cardinals, since the 5-foot-10 Jones is the team’s third leading scorer at 13.6 points per game, and leads Louisville with 3.7 assists. The senior from Memphis is also a generally reliable three point shooter, hitting 33.6% from the arc on the year, and he also averages 2.0 steals per game. So just to emphasize this point: the fact that Jones won’t be playing tonight is huge news for Syracuse, and Kaleb Joseph in particular.
It’s also big for Syracuse because, quite frankly, this is a Louisville team with virtually no bench. The only guards who gets anything resembling significant minutes off the bench are Anton Gill, a 6-foot-3 sophomore who plays 10 minutes per game, and Quentin Snider, a 6-foot-2 freshman who logs just 9.3 minutes per game. Neither of the pair averages more than 2.6 points per game, and they’ve both struggled mightily shooting the ball. Gill has shot just 32.8% overall and 17.6% from three, and Snider hits 30.9% from the field and 20.8% from distance.
In fact, the biggest loss might not be what Jones can bring from a defensive aspect, hounding Kaleb Joseph up and down the court, but the enormous blow to the team’s ability to score the basketball. Four players, including Jones, average double figures and after that there’s a significant dropoff. The team’s fifth starter, Chinanu Onuaku (Arinze’s little brother) averages just 3.2 points per game. Amazingly, that’s the fifth highest average for Louisville this year.
Of course, the Cardinals have a pretty good trio to lean on tonight, with Terry Rozier, Montrezl Harrell, and Wayne Blackshear. Rozier leads Louisville in scoring at 18.0 points per game and adds 5.5 boards, and the 6-foot-1 sophomore hits 34.3% from downtown. Harrell, an ACC Player of the Year candidate, averages nearly a double-double with 15.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, and hits 57.6% from the field. Blackshear, a 6-foor-5 senior, rounds out the team’s top scorers with 10.9 points per game and offers another three point threat, hitting 32.3% from deep (down from 39.5% last season).
Louisville has lost two of its last three games. One is very understandable, having lost on the road at Virginia, but after bouncing back with a win against Pitt, the Cards fell at home to NC State. NC State has proven to be a pretty feisty team this season, but it was still surprising for Pitino’s squad to drop that game at home. It seems hard to imagine that a Pitino coached, top 15-ranked team would lose three of four games, but that’s exactly what Syracuse is hoping will happen tonight.
The good news for Syracuse is that, after struggling a bit against Jahlil Okafor, Rakeem Christmas has to be licking his chops at the prospect of taking it to a raw freshman, even if it is the kid brother of a fellow Orangeman. Christmas can probably expect to see a lot of double teams and traps out of the Louisville zone, but I still expect him to bounce back from Saturday’s game with a 20 point effort tonight.
Another key for Syracuse will be the continued progression and assertiveness of Tyler Roberson, who faces his stiffest test of the season with Harrell. Roberson needs to be aggressive on the boards, limiting Harrell’s second chance opportunities. Harrell averages 3.3 offensive rebounds per game, and both Christmas and Roberson, but Roberson in particular, has to try to keep him from dominating the offensive glass.
Syracuse also needs the aggressive play of Kaleb Joseph that we saw against Boston College, rather than the more timid play that we saw against Duke. When Joseph plays aggressively on offense, he can become a major plus for Syracuse. He obviously needs to continue working on protecting the ball, especially against a team that loves to apply pressure and handcheck like Louisville, but this is also where Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije will help evade that pressure defense.
I alluded to the Louisville zone earlier, and the Cardinals will come at the Orange with a 2-3 for most of the game in the halfcourt set, making it essential for Gbinije to continue his hot shooting, and hopefully for Trevor Cooney to get back on track from deep.
When Syracuse lost to Duke, one of my very first thoughts was that, based on that performance alone, I thought this team could knock off Louisville. The suspension of Chris Jones only bolsters my belief that the Orange can come away with a win in the Carrier Dome tonight. It’ll be a tough game, as is par for the course against Louisville, but if the Orange are going to collect a “trophy win” this season, tonight may very well be their best shot.