College Hoops Monday: Your Commentary

January 17th, 2011
While there are four games on Monday involving ranked teams it doesn't take much effort to realize which contest gets the main line on the marquee. Syracuse (18-0, 5-0) heads south to take on Pittsburgh (17-1, 5-0) in a matchup of the two 5-0 Big East teams, and the Orange have yet to lose at all this season. But the dynamic of this contest changed some when Syracuse wing Kris Joseph hit his head on the Carrier Dome floor in the first half of Saturday's win over Cincinnati. Head coach Jim Boeheim said after the game that the prospects of Joseph playing on Monday night weren't good, and if that's the case then a little bit of the spotlight likely shifts onto freshman forwards James Southerland (6.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 38.7% 3PT). Southerland, highly touted out of high school for his perimeter shooting ability, has improved defensively as the season's worn on and his development on one of the wings will be crucial at the Pete as the Orange take on a group that's had a good amount of success against their 2-3 zone.

Leading scorers Ashton Gibbs (16.3 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Brad Wanamaker (12.8 ppg, 5.3 apg) both shoot better than 40% from beyond the arc and the same can be said for Gilbert Brown (11.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg). But Jamie Dixon's team is well-versed in how to attack Syracuse's zone defense, doing a good job of working the ball into the high post and not settling too often for the three. So many coaches and analysts highlight that foul line area as the key for breaking down a zone but when it comes time to perform many teams fail to fully utilize the area. Pitt can either flash a perimeter player into the area or they'll have a Gary McGhee, who isn't a prolific scorer but does a good job of passing the ball from that area when needed, flash into the opening. Frontcourt players like Dante Taylor and Nasir Robinson will also have opportunities against the Syracuse defense, and with Pitt boasting an offensive rebounding percentage of 46.3% keeping the big men off the offensive glass will be crucial for the Orange.

Syracuse doesn't lack for interior muscle (and depth) themselves, and their frontcourt is led by a senior forward in Rick Jackson who has a solid argument for All-America status. Jackson leads Syracuse in minutes per game, also averaging 13.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. The Philadelphia native is also adept at the art of the outlet pass, which allows guards Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche to run out with designs on scoring some easy fast break points. Jardine leads the team in assists (6.1) while ranking behind only Joseph in scoring (13.7), with his game benefitting from an offseason body transformation similar to that of Jackson's. Also of importance to Syracuse is the play of freshmen centers Fab Melo and Moussa Keita, who alternate in the lineup in a fashion similar to what Craig Forth and Jeremy McNeil did during their 2002-03 national title season.

Keita has been the more consistent of the two this season, with the more publicized Melo proving to be a bit more of a project than many expected before his arrival on campus. But the Brazilian played well on Saturday afternoon, and the hope for the Orange (and their fan base) is that Melo's play against the Bearcats is a harbinger of things to come. Keita's consistency is due in part to his better understanding of playing the middle in that zone defense, and given the number of scoring options Syracuse has he simply needs to focus on defending and rebounding right now. If Pittsburgh can exploit the Syracuse youth in the middle offensively they've got a good chance of playing efficient offensively (efficiency of 121. 8 on the season; Syracuse opponents average an efficiency of 88.9). Both teams defend the three well with Syracuse limiting opponents to 28.1%, so while Pitt will need to knock down a few perimeter shots they can't afford to fall in love with them. Look for another physical battle between the Orange and Panthers with the winner making themselves the early favorite a third of the way through the Big East schedule.

The other undefeated team in Big East play is 4-0 Villanova, and they hit the road to take on a Connecticut team that's maturing by the game and playing good basketball. But the one thing about the Huskies that some forget is that they've got two losses in conference play, making a win on Monday afternoon vital if they're to remain in the discussion for one of those four double-byes in the Big East Tournament. Guard Kemba Walker is definitely important but UConn will need their big men to play as well as they did at DePaul on Saturday in order to win, and while they don't have a player the caliber of Maryland's Jordan Williams the Huskies do have a few bodies to throw at Mouphtaou Yarou and Antonio Pena.

In the Big 12 a rejuvenated Kansas State takes on Missouri in Columbia, with the Tigers looking to rebound from their loss at Texas A&M while the Wildcats hope the build on a beating of Texas Tech. Missouri has two conference losses already, meaning that they can ill-afford a third at this point in the season if they're to remain a factor in the Big 12 title chase. And Kansas visits Baylor with the Bears in desperate need of a marquee victory for a resume that's devoid of such bulk, and the frontcourt matchup of players such as the Morris twins (Kansas) and Perry Jones/Quincy Acy (Baylor) should be worth the price of admission alone. Other matchups to keep tabs on include Fairfield visiting Rider in a matchup of two of the top three teams in the MAAC while Idaho, playing their best basketball as a member of the WAC, visits Fresno State.

Top 25
9:30 PM (3) Kansas at Baylor (ESPN)
7:30 PM (4) Syracuse at (5) Pittsburgh (ESPN)
3:30 PM (7) Villanova at (9) Connecticut (ESPN)
5:30 PM (20) Kansas State at (12) Missouri (ESPN)

NCAA Division I Games
1:00 PM Quinnipiac at Brown
2:00 PM Niagara at Manhattan
2:00 PM Loyola (MD) at St. Peter's
4:00 PM Dartmouth at Colgate
4:30 PM Bethune-Cookman at Maryland-Eastern Shore
5:00 PM Albany at Stony Brook (ESPN3)
7:00 PM UAB at East Carolina
7:00 PM Houston Baptist at Fairleigh Dickinson
7:00 PM Charleston at Chattanooga
7:00 PM Elon at Appalachian State
7:00 PM Hartford at Binghamton
7:00 PM Boston University at UMBC
7:00 PM Davidson at UNC Greensboro
7:00 PM Jackson State at Prairie View A&M (ESPNU)
7:00 PM Fairfield at Rider
7:00 PM Canisius at Siena
8:00 PM South Carolina State at Coppin State
8:00 PM Florida A&M at Delaware State
8:00 PM Citadel at Samford
8:05 PM Lamar at Arkansas State
8:30 PM Campbell at Lipscomb
8:30 PM North Carolina A&T at Hampton
9:00 PM Norfolk State at Howard (ESPNU)
9:00 PM Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Alcorn State
9:00 PM Mississippi Valley State at Southern University
9:00 PM Grambling State at Texas Southern
10:00 PM Idaho at Fresno State