Villanova was reeling after a tough start to conference play as they prepared to face Rick Pitino's Lousiville Cardinals. Syracuse had been experiencing the opposite this season, holding the number-six ranking as they headed into their weekend match-up with the Cards. Both teams saw the same result on their home floor, however, knocking off the higher-ranked team with a second-half surge.
In their previous meeting, the Orange knocked off the Wildcats in Syracuse, 72-61. History doesn't always repeat itself, however, and the 3-3 Wildcats are hoping to avoid that tomorrow morning.
A home crowd at the Wells Fargo Center might be a factor in producing a different result -- students are planning a "white out" for the game, and a little ribbing of 'Cuse star Michael Carter-Williams should be expected [wear your bathrobes, kids!]. Even if the Wells Fargo atmosphere isn't great, it will not be as pro-Orange as the solid-orange stands at the Carrier Dome.
Make no mistake, however, even after knocking off Louisville on Tuesday, the Wildcats won't be close to a favorite to knock off the number-three Syracuse Orange. Despite playing the underdog yet again, Villanova won't be feeling overwhelmed.
"If we get it going we can, I mean, we just proved it, LaSalle just proved it. We can beat anybody," Jay Wright said to CBS Philly.
They'll have to beat just about anybody if they hope to advance to the postseason this year, needing not only quantity, but quality of wins. The 'Cats are currently sitting at an RPI ranking of 58 and a strength of schedule rank of 41 — not yet enough to be a likely at-large team.
Syracuse comes into this meeting with an 18-1 record and the 6th-best defense in the nation. Louisville had the 2nd-best defense when they appeared at the Wells Fargo Center (turning the 'Cats over 19 times). Offensively, the two teams have a similar efficiency-rating, but the Orange have connected on a higher percentage of their field goal attempts (45.7% to 45.1%), but neither is connecting on much more than 32% from beyond the arc.
The biggest difference for Villanova, is that instead of facing Louisville's press and match-up-zone, they will be battling the tricky 2-3 zone.
Beating the zone can be done through a couple approaches. Scoring on the fastbreak is the easiest, if there is no time to set up the zone, then there is no zone to beat. Shooting over the zone can also work until or unless the defense expands out to better cover the perimeter. One of the best ways to work the zone, however, is to use the high post — it is the spot on the floor that the 2-3 zone defense is most vulnerable to, both as a scoring option and as a point of distribution.
The 'Cats are streaky shooting this season, making just 40.8% from the field and 34% from beyond the arc. If the Wildcats' get hot from deep, they might stand a chance against the 'Cuse on that alone. They can help their case, however, by using the high-post to find easier baskets, both on the perimeter and underneath. A player like Mouph Yarou has proven he is a capable shooter from midrange and both Daniel Ochefu and Mo Sutton hold team-high field goal percentages, connecting on over 52% of their attempts — in other words, the front court should be a focus for the Wildcats against Syracuse when forced into a half-court set.
Villanova is a team that wants to play hard on defense and for their defensive successes to drive their offense, so a maximum effort will be necessary to get the 'Cats to that point. They took the ball away from Louisville 17 times on Tuesday (five more than their season average) and will need to do that again tomorrow.
Can the Wildcats beat a second top-5 opponent at home in consecutive games? Jay Wright believes anything is possible, and if the Wildcats can execute on their game-plan tomorrow morning, then perhaps it is.
Date: Saturday, January 26th
Time: 11:00 a.m. EST
Location: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA