When the Villanova Wildcats and the Syracuse Orange meet on December 28th at the Carrier Dome, the matchup will likely be heavily promoted by the media as a heavyweight clash between top 10 teams. It will probably ride the storyline of these former BIG EAST foes, too. And for good measure, they will toss in the impending backcourt matchup between brothers Dylan Ennis and Tyler Ennis.
All of these storylines are very real, and they'll be sure to deliver CBS (which will air Kentucky vs. Louisville directly after) some of their best basketball ratings until the NCAA Tournament's opening weekend. What nobody will likely be talking about, however, is the high stakes that this game holds for Villanova going forward.
When Syracuse announced they were leaving the BIG EAST for the ACC, it threw Villanova's future firmly into doubt. And while by most accounts it was Pitt and West Virginia who didn't cover themselves in glory while planning their exit strategy (or in blocking Villanova's proposed move to FBS football), the Orange were very much a part of the problem that arose from that surprise departure.
Now, Syracuse is sitting in front of the cozy fire that is ACC basketball while Villanova and the rest of the BIG EAST are fighting to re-establish themselves nationally. And yes, Villanova is doing a hell of a job while the rest of the BIG EAST flops. Miserably, I might add.
So now once again, it's up to Villanova to make another statement in front of the college basketball world. And this is their best chance yet, as they'll get the opportunity to beat one of the schools who put them in this precarious position in the first place. They get the chance to take a rival down a peg and put themselves up a rung in the process. Yes, Syracuse is a rival.
Villanova has never, and will never, be what Georgetown was to Syracuse (or maybe even UConn for that matter), there's a sneaky air of competitiveness to this rivalry that probably goes unnoticed on a national scale. Doubting it? That's fair, but there is a reason that Villanova and Syracuse announced a home-home-neutral agreement last May. They're different, and there is lot of history.
Villanova's first BIG EAST Tournament in 1981 ended in a triple overtime heartbreaking loss to Syracuse. They would meet again in the 1988 final, with Syracuse again coming out on top. In '91, a bad 'Nova team would get their revenge, knocking off the regular season champion Orange squad at Madison Square Garden. And who could forget Jay Wright's 'Cats' ruining Gerry McNamara's Senior Night at the Dome?
The Wildcats were the opponent when the NCAA on-campus attendance record was broken at the Carrier Dome in 2006. And again in 2010. And if this game didn't fall in the middle of Christmas and New Year's Eve (one of the heaviest vacation weeks of the year), I'd say there's a good chance that record gets broken again.
(Editor's Note: Syracuse has confirmed that 30,000+ tickets have been sold)
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There's a reason that when you hear the good folks at Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician talk about Villanova, they are rarely over-confident. While the two schools were BIG EAST rivals, Villanova posted a 28-26 record vs. Syracuse (the Orange lead the all-time series 38-32). In the Carrier Dome, the Wildcats are 14-14. And Jay Wright? He has posted a winning record vs. the legendary Jim Boeheim, winning 11 and losing just 7 games while in charge of the Wildcats. He's one of the few coaches to have successfully figured out the vaunted 2-3 zone.
Off the hardwood, the two schools are in frequent recruiting battles. Jim Boeheim often comes into the fertile greater-Philadelphia area to draw talent. Hakeem Warrick, Rick Jackson, Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters have opted to head north in the past. But the Orange are winning the most recent recruiting battles, which is troubling to Villanova, the top program in the area.
2013 4-star forwards Tyler Roberson and B.J. Johnson opted to ride the bench at Syracuse rather than claim immediate playing time at Villanova. Perhaps nothing summed up their advantage better than when 2015 5-star shooting guard Malachi Richardson opted for Syracuse over Villanova a few weeks ago.
"I felt that Syracuse was the best fit for me," Richardson said in a telephone conversation. "I loved everything about Coach (Jim) Boeheim and the Syracuse program. That really sealed the deal for me."
Syracuse has better facilities, a HOF coach, their players become lottery picks in the NBA Draft, and they've won a National Championship in this century. They're the hot program, and Villanova is playing catch-up from the onset currently. The Wildcats' best chance to get a leg up is on the court.
So now, with both teams firmly entrenched in the national spotlight, they'll meet again for 2+ hours. One game does not make or break a program - both have proved that in the past. But a Wildcats win would provide a serious shot of momentum into the program (as if there wasn't enough already), while a loss might raise doubt about whether Jay Wright has truly brought his team back.