It probably seems a little odd to be staring at the face of Sylvester Stallone, particularly since he attended the University of Miami – Syracuse’s opponent on Saturday. But the point I’ll be getting to in this game preview is that the Orange desperately need to heed his sage words in the clip above (and yes, I just referred to something Rocky Balboa said as “sage”). Of course, because the big palooka (and “big” is a relative term here, since Stallone is approximately four feet tall in reality) never graduated from the U, I’m saying that the speech above is up for grabs.
And since Syracuse’s season is revolving around a kid from Philly who, after a disappointing first few seasons, is completing a heck of an underdog story himself, it feels fairly apt. Is that a little bit of a stretch? Maybe. But it’s a fantastic speech, and honestly, doesn’t it just make you want to go pound some meat?
Wait, that sounded wrong. Anyway, let’s move on.
This season for Syracuse has been based on seeing how hard the team can get hit and keep moving forward. This has been a season of vicious body blows, with the NCAA looming to quite possibly deliver a knockout punch. Between season ending injuries to Dajuan Coleman and Chris McCullough and the up and down play by, well, basically everyone not named Rakeem Christmas, this has been a season that will continue to test the mettle of these young men.
How do sophomores BJ Johnson and Ron Patterson keep taking hits and moving forward? How does Kaleb Joseph overcome the bad plays, become resilient, and learn to fight back stronger than ever? Let’s not kid ourselves here. This is not a Syracuse team that was ever going to make a run to a national title as presently constructed. Had Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant returned for one more season, well, that might not have ended up being the case.
But the fact of the matter is that this has the makings of a season in which we learn whether or not the hottest fires do forge the strongest steel, and how ably these guys can overcome adversity so that when next season rolls around, even though they’ll be without Rakeem Christmas, Jim Boeheim’s squad will be able to take on their figurative Apollo Creed and come out on top.
See? I told you guys I could make the Rocky thing work. You all owe me a dollar. Moving on to Miami…
Even though Miami and Syracuse have never been particularly bitter enemies, a lot of Syracuse fans still hold them to a pretty high level of contempt if only for that brutal finish to the 1992 gridiron matchup, when Chris Gedney came three yards shy of helping deliver a huge victory over the Canes. Instead, the Orange fell 16-10, and about the only revenge we’d care about was when Donovan McNabb annihilated them his senior year.
So while there’s certainly history between the two schools, spanning two conferences, it’s mostly been on the football field. That doesn’t mean Saturday’s game won’t be a hard fought affair, but it never feels like there’s much on the line against the Hurricanes even with them coming into the matchup with a 13-5 record.
Most noteworthy in that record is an absolute domination of then-No. 2 Duke, as the Canes stomped the Blue Devils – in Cameron Indoor Stadium – by a final score of 90-74. Needless to say, this is the best team that the Orange have faced in ACC competition, and quite possibly one of the best they’ve taken on overall. Miami also took Virginia to overtime before ultimately falling.
Of course, there are some oddities on the Miami schedule, like a 72-44 embarrassment at the hands of Eastern Kentucky. In that game, Eastern Kentucky used some white hot three point shooting (14-of-26) and dominated the glass (37 to 26), and that was all she wrote. Since entering conference play, Miami has faced a pretty front loaded schedule. Not only have they played Duke and Virginia, but they also fell to Notre Dame by a final of 75-70 in South Bend.
On Thursday, the Canes topped NC State 65-60 behind a massive discrepancy at the free throw line. The Wolfpack attempted only four foul shots the entire game, while the Hurricanes made the most of their trips, hitting a pretty excellent 18-of-21. In the end, that and the fact that Miami knocked down nine treys out of 23 attempts proved to be the difference.
Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez are the two big guns offensively for the Hurricanes, and form one of the best guard tandems in the ACC. At 6-foot-5, McClellan has the size to shoot over the top of the zone, and is adept at scoring anywhere on the court. The fourth year junior is shooting better than 52% from the field, 37% from long range, and 80% from the free throw line while leading the Hurricanes in scoring.
The 5-foot-11 Rodriguez, a transfer from Kansas State, is second on the team in scoring and has made more triples than anyone else on the team, knocking down 38 on the year at a clip of 36%. Rodriguez leads the Hurricanes with 4.3 assists per game, and also averages more than two steals every time he takes the floor. He’s the type of little pest who could give Syracuse’s primary ballhandlers – particularly Kaleb Joseph – some serious fits. Don’t be surprised if, because of both this and Joseph’s sometimes poor defense, Buss Patterson winds up logging more minutes than the young point guard in this game due to Patterson’s superior perimeter defense.
After the dynamic duo in the backcourt, Miami doesn’t have anyone else averaging double figures in the scoring column. Manu Lecomte, a 5-foot-11 sophomore from Belgium who comes off the bench, is averaging a little over nine points per outing and, by percentage, is the most dangerous perimeter threat on the team. Lecomte has knocked down 31 threes this year at a rate of 44%.
Rakeem Christmas and Tyler Roberson will have their hands full keeping Tonye Jekiri off the glass, as the 7-foot junior pulls down more than 10 boards per game, to go along with 7.9 points and 1.6 blocks. He finishes at a respectable rate, too, hitting better than 52% of his field goals and 69% of his free throws. After Jekiri, however, there aren’t many strong rebounders for the Hurricanes. If he gets into any early foul trouble or can be at least negated, the Orange should have a good chance of winning the battle on the boards.
Miami isn’t a particularly big team, but they have plenty of depth and like to run players in and out, with 10 players averaging at least 12 minutes per game, though after McClellan, Rodriguez, Jekiri, and Lecomte, no one else gets more than 19 minutes per game. Like I said, plenty of depth and athleticism, if not much by way of size. Miami is a dangerous team for Syracuse, boasting a team three point percentage of better than 37% on the year, and unlike the last several opponents that the Orange have faced, they take good care of the ball. The Hurricanes only give the ball away about 10 times per game.
It’s going to be a difficult game for the Orange, and the combination of a deep rotation and three point shooting prowess is going to make this an extremely difficult game. It certainly helps that Miami only has one day off between games, and that the matchup is in the Carrier Dome. This is a great barometer to see what kind of team Syracuse is going to be down the stretch run, after playing a series of ACC bottom feeders.