Tomorrow the rivalry will be renewed. Syracuse Head Coach Jim Boeheim may not be on the sideline and it may no longer be the old Big East, but it is still Georgetown-Syracuse.
After nearly three years since their last meeting, the Georgetown Hoyas (3-3) will host the No. 14 Syracuse Orange (6-1), who will be without Boeheim as he begins serving his nine-game suspension for NCAA infractions. Georgetown-Syracuse is one of the most storied college basketball rivalries, with Syracuse holding the all-time series edge with 49 wins to Georgetown’s 41. The teams met 14 times in the old Big East Conference tournament, splitting the postseason series 7-7.
But for the majority of the team, Saturday’s meeting, the first installment of a four-year home-and-home series, will be the first taste of the rivalry. In fact, only two players — senior co-captains guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and center Bradley Hayes — were on the team for the 2012-13 season, in which Georgetown and Syracuse played three times. Although Hayes did not receive playing time in those three games, Smith-Rivera averaged just over 30 minutes a game and was a key contributor in the Hoyas’ two wins. In fact, one of Smith-Rivera’s best games from his freshman campaign came against Syracuse and its notorious 2-3 zone defense. In Georgetown’s 61-39 victory over Syracuse, he tallied 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals.
“If you just watch the game, you can just tell it’s a lot more than just a game. A lot of bragging rights, a lot of proving within each program,” Smith-Rivera said. “The guys definitely know, you know, the rivalry. … They know what this game is going to be like, and they’re looking forward to it.”
The strength of Syracuse’s zone is that it forces opponents to take bad shots. This season, the Orange defense ranks 20th in the nation in points per 100 possessions and 23rd in three-point defense.
According to Hayes, the key to breaking the zone and finding open shots is playing the ball inside and then finding open shooters.
“[We have to] just get it into the middle and kick it outside for the open shot,” Hayes said. “We have a lot of great shooters. If we can get it inside and kick it out, we’ll be very successful.”
Fortunately, after struggling to begin the season, Smith-Rivera seemed to find his shot in Georgetown’s last game against Maryland Eastern Shore Tuesday, scoring 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting. With sophomore guard Tre Campbell’s return to the lineup after missing three games due to illness, Smith-Rivera was able to play off the ball, running off screens and finding open looks. Against Syracuse’s zone, Georgetown will look to build upon Tuesday’s success.
“Ball movement is going to be essential to the rest of the season and also, you know, especially against a team like that. The zone is very intense,” Smith-Rivera said of the zone. “It works in their favor a lot of the time.”
Campbell’s return will also add another shooter to Georgetown’s roster. Junior forward Reggie Cameron, freshman forward Marcus Derrickson, sophomore forward Paul White, sophomore forward Isaac Copeland and Smith-Rivera are all three-point threats, each recording games of multiple three-pointers made over their Georgetown careers.
Copeland, who was the Hoyas’ leading scorer through the first five games, was held scoreless Tuesday and will look to bounce back in a game in which Georgetown’s success hinges on his production.
“[I just] have to stay confident. It happens every once in a while. I mean, we still won by double-digits, so I’m not really worried about it. Just stay confident and keep it moving,” Copeland said.
Meanwhile, Boeheim, whoswas suspended due to an NCAA ruling Thursday. will be replaced by Assistant Coach Michael Hopkins. Although Boeheim’s absence will be felt during the game, the Orange is still a formidable opponent. Led by fifth-year senior guards Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, the Orange boast both a top-25 three-point shooting offense and defense.
Cooney, like Smith-Rivera, played in the 2013 trio of games. He is second in the nation this season in percentage of minutes played. Although Syracuse usually plays a maximum of seven players per game, Thompson does not believe this is a weakness for Syracuse.
“I don’t think you can [exploit Syracuse’s lack of depth],” Thompson said. “They’re used to playing six or seven [players]. They have an older group. Both Cooney and Gbinije are fifth-year guys … We just have to play and not worry about them.”
Saturday’s game will also be a renewal of one more rivalry, the one between Cooney and Smith-Rivera. This rivalry, however, dates much further back than three years, according to Smith-Rivera.
“[I’ve known him from AAU since] like middle school, man. Cooney’s always been a great player. I’ve seen him around the circuit, seen him in college obviously, too. He’s a great shooter, great player; it’ll be tough for us,” Smith-Rivera said.
“I don’t talk to him — not consistently. And him being at Syracuse makes it even worse,” Smith-Rivera added jokingly.
In one of the most anticipated games of the season, Georgetown will have its full roster — minus sophomore forward Akoy Agau, who is out for the season with a torn ACL — and is riding a two-game winning streak. Syracuse is coming off its first loss of the season, a 66-58 overtime loss against Wisconsin (5-3), which Georgetown defeated 71-61 in the first game of the 2K Classic in New York City.
With a crowd that is expected to nearly sell out, Verizon Center will be at its loudest for a game that Georgetown Head Coach John Thompson III summed up best.
“It will always be Syracuse-Georgetown, regardless of what coach or players are sitting on their bench and what coach or players are sitting on our bench.”
Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. on Fox.
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