MEN'S BASKETBALL | Georgetown, Syracuse Set to Clash at Carrier Dome
Published: Monday, February 6, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 01:02
Rivalry games are what make teams great. Every college hoops team has one opponent that makes students' blood boil and message boards flood with venom. Even in the Big East, a storied conference littered with fierce rivalries, Georgetown-Syracuse is at another level. This is a mutual animosity that goes back decades between universities that sit more than 350 miles apart.
It has been a year since the two teams faced off, a year that has altered the future of the rivalry. In the fall of 2011, Syracuse announced that it planned to leave the Big East — the conference it founded with Georgetown and five other schools in 1979 — and move to the Atlantic Coast Conference for the 2014 season.
"Obviously there aren't too many games that are as spirited as the Georgetown-Syracuse games have been through the years," Georgetown Head Coach John Thompson III said.
With the conference shift looming, it is unclear exactly how many more games Georgetown and Syracuse will have as conference archrivals. It seems certain, though, that tomorrow's contest at the Carrier Dome will be one of the last times the two schools will play while in the midst of a Big East title race.
"We know they're a good team, they have good scorers, they have big-time players and we know it's going to be a dog fight," freshman forward Greg Whittington said on Monday at McDonough Arena. "Should be a run-and-gun game."
Syracuse boasts one of its best teams in recent memory. The Orange are 23-1, including a 10-1 mark in conference play, good enough for first place in the Big East and the No. 2 spot in the national rankings.
"This is your rivalry game, so you're always a little more amped up for this game," senior guard and captain Jason Clark said. "It's going to be a tough game. The biggest thing is to stay composed, especially because the crowd is going to be loud."
No. 12 Georgetown, meanwhile, has vastly exceeded preseason expectations and finds itself third in the Big East with an 8-3 conference record and 18-4 overall mark.
"I mean I can't sit here and tell you it's not an ultimate rivalry game, because everyone knows it is," junior forward Hollis Thompson said. "This is Syracuse; we have to bring our A game."
A win over Syracuse would be Georgetown's nation-leading fifth against a top-25 team and would draw the Blue and Gray within one game of the Orange in the Big East title race. A victory would be Thompson III's second consecutive win at the Carrier Dome after he earned his first career win at Syracuse last year.
"That was big for us. That was the first time I've ever won in that building, first time [Thompson III] has won in that building," Clark said. "But every single time I go up there, it's always fun to play. The crowd gets into it, it's always fun when you've got 30,000 people yelling at you, yelling all types of stuff at you."
Syracuse's depth has been its calling card this season, as the Orange has 10 players averaging more than 12 minutes per game. Only one, senior forward Kris Joseph, plays more than 30 mpg.
Joseph, a D.C. native who was recruited by Thompson III coming out of high school, is the team's leading scorer at 13.7 points per game and also averages 4.9 rebounds per contest. Syracuse's other senior, guard Scoop Jardine, leads the team in assists with 4.8 per game and averages 8.5 points on 50.3 percent shooting.
"We tell [our players] we're going to face probably the best team in the country right now," Thompson III said. "[Syracuse] is multilayered in terms of their depth at every position."
The stifling defense that has been the foundation for Syracuse Head Coach Jim Boheim's squads throughout the years hasn't been lacking this year either.
"I think a lot of people look at the Syracuse zone and say, ‘two-three zone,'" Thompson III said. "Great. But what Boheim does, because that's all he plays, he sees how you're going to attack it; he tweaks and adjusts it. So within the game, there is a cat and mouse game of ‘what are they taking away, and what are they giving us.'"
That famous zone defense is what drives the Orange, simultaneously forcing turnovers and preventing opponents from getting open shots. Syracuse forces 16 turnovers per game while committing just 10, and has held Big East squads to 39 percent shooting through 11 games.
"They're a great transition team, so that zone helps them get out to fast breaks and score in bunches very fast," freshman guard Jabril Trawick said. "We're focusing on unforced turnovers, because once we turn the ball over they turn it into baskets."
"They rake. They slap. They make sure they go after the ball," senior center Henry Sims said. "[We] just [have to] be tough — honestly, you prepare for that the whole season,"
On the flip side, Syracuse is not a strong three-point shooting team, hitting at a poor 30 percent clip in Big East play. The Hoyas will likely attempt to force the Orange into long bombs, especially Joseph, who is 9-of-40 from long range in his last 11 games.
Sophomore center Fab Melo is perhaps the Orange's most important player. The 7-foot center averages 5.8 boards per game and is a formidable defensive presence. Jardine is the veteran playmaker for his team, and he will look to hit Melo — who is 33-of-50 from the field in eight Big East games — early and often. Syracuse's lone loss came when Melo was serving a three-game suspension due to academic violations.
"[Melo is] a good player, definitely on the defensive end, but my job is just to attack, make him work on defense and on offense," Sims said.
The team is well aware that upsetting the Orange will be no easy task, but neither Thompson III nor his players seemed particularly intimidated. Clark mentioned Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium as perhaps the craziest arena he's played in, and Thompson III joked that the Bayi Rockets had already given his younger players a taste of a hostile environment in Beijing.