Top 25 Countdown: No. 4 Syracuse Orange

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 34-3, 17-1 Big East (1st); Lost in the Elite 8 to Ohio State

Head Coach: Jim Boeheim

Key Losses: Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters, Fab Melo

Newcomers: Jerami Grant, DaJuan Coleman

Projected Lineup:

G: Brandon Triche, Sr.
G: Michael Carter-Williams, So.
F: James Southerland, Sr.
F: CJ Fair, Jr.
C: Rakeem Christmas, So.
Bench: Jerami Grant, Fr.; DaJuan Coleman, Fr.; Baye Keita, So.; Trevor Cooney, Fr.

Outlook: Jim Boeheim has done a lot of impressive things during his long and illustrious coaching career, but there may be no achievement greater than what he was able to accomplish last season. In a year plagued by scandal — The Dion Waiter transfer saga; the Bernie Fine scandal; Fab Melo’s eligibility, and legal, issues; a report of failed drug tests that were covered up. — the Orange were still able to finish the regulars season at 30-1 and make the Elite 8. And if Melo, the anchor of their 2-3 zone last season, had done his homework, who knows what could have ended up happening. The Orange lost just one game when he was in the lineup.

Melo is gone this season, as are three of Syracuse’s top four scorers from last season. But the Orange return quite a bit of a talent and a team that should be perfectly suited to playing Boeheim’s 2-3 zone.

The key to this season is going to be the development of Michael Carter-Williams. A top 25 recruit coming out of high school, MCW was buried on the bench for much of last season as Scoop Jardine, Waiters and Triche made up the perimeter rotation. As a sophomore, MCW will be asked to slide into the starting role, and there’s little reason to believe he won’t be able to thrive. From his size, to his handle, to his passing ability, MCW has been compared to Jason Kidd, and while that’s a tough comparison to live up to, it’s not that far off. He’ll make everyone on the team better because they’ll get open shots. With the combination of shooters on the perimeter and athletes around the rim that Syracuse has on the roster this season, it’s not crazy to think MCW could averaged 15 points and five assists this year.

While his back court mate is quite inexperienced, even for a sophomore, Brandon Triche is arguably as experienced as any player in the country, having started every game for the Orange for the past three years. He’s also the epitome of a team-player, sacrificing his minutes last season to allow Waiters more playing time without making a peep. He’s a combo-guard that defends, rebounds and (usually) is a knockdown three point shooter.

But most importantly, like MCW (who’s 6-foot-6), Triche is a bigger guard. He stands 6-foot-4, which means that, when teaming with MCW at the top of the Syracuse 2-3 zone, he’ll help create all kinds of problems for Syracuse opponents.

Expect redshirt freshman sharpshooter Trevor Cooney to be the third guard in this equation.

In the front court, Syracuse has a multitude of weapons and different looks that can be used. The most familiar roster for Big East fans should be CJ Fair, an uber-athletic, 6-foot-8 combo-forward who has had his fair share of poster-worthy dunks during his college career. Fair has also had some impressive performances in his two seasons with the Orange, but he’s struggled to find consistent minutes on the floor. He’ll get them this season, and should thrive.

James Southerland is the guy I expect to eventually start at the four. Like Fair, he’s athletic and, at 6-foot-8, lanky enough to cause serious problems in the 2-3 zone. Southerland is also a very good three-point shooter, meaning he’ll be able to help create space in the paint. Freshman Jerami Grant, another athletic, 6-foot-8 forward, should see minutes as well.

The biggest question mark for the Orange will be at the center spot, where Rakeem Christmas, a sophomore, and DaJuan Coleman, a freshman, will likely split minutes. Christmas and Coleman are both 6-foot-9, but where Christmas is long and a shotblocker, Coleman is much bigger, checking in around 280 pounds.What Boeheim has done the past two seasons with elite center recruits — Melo and Christmas — is to put them in the starting lineup but yank them just a few minutes into the game, going with a smaller lineup. It will be interesting to see if he does that with Coleman this season.

Whatever the case, if he decides to use them on the floor together, it may end up hurting the Orange defensively; neither is ideal to play the wing in the 2-3 zone. Individually, Christmas is the better defender while Coleman is better offensively and on the glass. Another lanky center, sophomore Baye Keita, will also see minutes up front.

Predictions?: I still think Louisville is the best team in the Big East, but Syracuse isn’t really all that far behind. Like the Cardinals, I think the Orange are going to be much better on the defensive end of the floor than on the offensive end. But the bottom line is this: all the players taking over bigger roles for this Syracuse team were highly-touted recruits, and a few of them — MCW, Christmas, even throwing Coleman in there — were ranked in the top 25 nationally. Boeheim has done a great job recruiting in recent years, and this is the season it will pay off for him.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

URI fights off La Salle for share of A-10 title

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jeff Dowtin scored 25 points, including four key free throws in the final seconds, as No. 18 Rhode Island clinched a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season title with a hard-fought 95-93 overtime victory at La Salle on Tuesday night.

Five Rams scored in double figures. Stanford Robinson had 20 points, Jared Terrell had 14, E.C. Matthews had 13 and Fatts Russell had 10.

La Salle was led by B.J. Johnson, who posted a career-high 23 rebounds to go with 29 points. Johnson a double-double in the first half with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

The Rams (22-4, 14-1 Atlantic 10) trailed 30-18 midway through the first half before going on a 14-0 run and taking a 39-37 halftime lead.

Rhode Island never trailed in the second half and led 81-78 with three seconds left. The Rams purposely fouled Pookie Powell, who made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second. Tony Washington snared the long rebound and made the putback to tie the game at 81 at the end of regulation.

Cyril Langevine scored four straight points to give the Rams a 91-87 lead with 2:20 left in OT. Trailing 91-90, La Salle had two chances to take its first lead since the first half, but couldn’t convert.

Dowtin hit two free throws to give La Salle a 3-point lead, and the Rams again intentionally fouled Powell, this time with 3.2 seconds left. Powell again made the first — and accidentally made the second. After Dowtin made two more, the Explorers tried the same tactic yet again but were called for a lane violation.

Saul Phiri added 16 points, and Miles Brookins scored 13 for La Salle (11-17, 5-10).

BIG PICTURE

Rhode Island: The Rams are looking for the first outright A-10 title in team history. In 1980-81, they finished tied for a share of the Eastern Eight regular season title. The 14 conference victories equal a team record.

La Salle: The Explorers are now 9-4 at home this season and have lost five straight to Rhode Island at Tom Gola Arena. Johnson’s previous career-high in rebounds was 16 against Miami in November of last year.

No. 21 West Virginia gets back to basics in win over Baylor

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West Virginia was not happy about the way things ended in Lawrence, so they took it out on the hottest team in the Big 12.

On Saturday, No. 21 West Virginia blew a double-digit, second-half lead in a loss to Kansas for the second time this season. Given the nature of Saturday’s loss, not only with regards to the blown lead but also the frustration that comes with attempting just two free throws, the question for the Mountaineers going into Tuesday’s game at Baylor was how would they respond.

As was the case with its 35-point beating of Texas in the first game after their home loss to Kansas, West Virginia offered up a positive response in Waco. Esa Ahmad and Jevon Carter led a balanced offensive effort and Sagaba Konate was dominant around the basket as the Mountaineers picked up the 71-60 victory.

West Virginia built its advantage in the first half, finding quality looks offensively (and making them at a solid clip) while limiting Baylor on the other end of the floor. But Baylor was able to mount a rally in the second half, with West Virginia’s offense being stagnant at times with passing on the perimeter ultimately yielding to a hopeful hoist in the final seconds of the shot clock.

That’s been an issue for the Mountaineers on multiple occasions this season, in wins and losses alike, with Carter being the team’s best option to make a play either for himself or his teammates. Even with Tuesday’s win, West Virginia showed that it still has work to to in this area as the season’s most important month draws closer.

The second half offensive issues aside, the conversation should be about what Sagaba Konate gives West Virginia in the post. Konate finished with ten points, ten rebounds and nine blocked shots, tying the single-game school record set by D’Or Fisher in 2004.

The 6-foot-8 sophomore entered Tuesday’s game ranked fifth in the country in blocks per game (3.15), and his block percentage of 16.2 ranks third nationally. While the perimeter players, most notably Carter, receive attention for their roles in “Press Virginia”, a big reason why they’re able to be so aggressive is the presence of Konate on the back line. Players big and small alike have looked to challenge Konate at the rim, and more often than not those attempts fail to the his combination of timing and sheer strength.

Baylor was able to pull closer in the second half due to West Virginia’s at times sluggish offense and its work on the offensive boards. For the game Baylor rebounded 38.6 percent of its missed shots, outscoring the Mountaineers 15-7 in second-chance points. But they shot just 32.8 percent from the field and 3-for-9 from three, with West Virginia putting forth one of its better efforts with regards to half-court defense in addition to forcing 14 Baylor turnovers.

Ultimately, while West Virginia’s bounce-back performance was a good one the result wasn’t so much about learning something new about the Mountaineers so much as them getting back to who they are. The offense was balanced if not spectacular, and defensively one of the nation’s best rim protectors produced a virtuoso performance.

That’s been the formula West Virginia’s called upon when successful, and they’ll have to continue to do that if they’re to make a run in March.

Bubble Banter: Losses by Texas A&M and Creighton put them in weird spots

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

N.C. STATE (RPI: 55, KenPom: 47, NBC seed: 10): The Wolfpack avoided adding a bad loss to their résumé by knocking off Boston College. At this point, N.C. State has done enough to get into the tournament. Not only do they have five Quadrant 1 wins, but in that group of wins includes: Duke, Clemson, at North Carolina and Arizona on a neutral. They can still mess this thing up by going on a losing streak at the wrong time, but I think that N.C. State is closer to safe than people realize.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (RPI: 61, KenPom: 46, NBC seed: Out): It might be time to pay a little more attention to Mississippi State. After winning at Texas A&M on Tuesday, they now have three Quadrant 1 wins and a 6-8 record against the top two Quadrants with no bad losses. Here’s the problem: Their three best wins are Arkansas at home, Missouri at home, at Texas A&M, who may not end up being a tournament team. Throw in an atrocious non-conference SOS, and there is a reason they’re on the outside looking in. This is, however, a step in the right direction.

BUTLER (RPI: 34, KenPom: 20, NBC seed: 10): Butler did themselves a favor by picking up a Quadrant 2 win over Creighton at home. They now have a 3-8 record against Quadrant 1 with six Quadrant 2 wins. That loss to Georgetown at home doesn’t look pretty, but it shouldn’t be a killer so long as the committee takes into account that the Hoyas have been better late in the year. That’s a bad loss. It’s not a horrific loss. Their final two games of the regular season: at St. John’s and at Seton Hall. Win one and they should be fine, especially if they win their opener of the Big East tournament.

LOSERS

BAYLOR (RPI: 56, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Play-in game): Baylor did not help their cause on Tuesday, losing at home to West Virginia. That dropped them to 16-11 overall and 7-8 in the Big 12. Here are their final three games: at TCU, Oklahoma, at Kansas State. Those are all Quadrant 1 wins, and that’s before the Big 12 tournament. Baylor’s rallied a long way from the team that was barely in the mix for a bid three weeks ago. It’s not over yet, but they have quite a bit of work to do.

TEXAS A&M (RPI: 27, KenPom: 32, NBC seed: 7): This team is all over the place. They’re now 17-11 on the season after losing at home to Mississippi State, and they’ve now lost three straight games since Duane Wilson went down for the season. But the first two of those losses were on the road against top 30 teams, eight of their 11 losses are Quadrant 1 and of their three Quadrant 2 losses, this was the only one where they were anywhere near full strength. But they’ve had so many suspensions and injuries and illnesses and players missing time that I don’t know what is what with this group. Two of their last three are on the road, and they are already 6-9 in the SEC. I think the Aggies are in more trouble than people might realize.

CREIGHTON (RPI: 37, KenPom: 26, NBC seed: 7): I’m including Creighton here because a Creighton fan asked me about them this week so I figured it was worth the discussion. As of today, I think that Creighton is safe. They’re 3-7 against Quadrant 1, they have six Quadrant 2 wins and no bad losses. But I also recognize that the end of their season schedule isn’t exactly easy. They host Villanova on Saturday, and the Wildcats are finally healthy and playing with a Big East title on the line. Creighton should be DePaul, but then they have to play at Marquette, the same Marquette who just beat them in Omaha. Lose two out of three, and suddenly they’re 19-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big East. That would put them at 5th or 6th in the league standings, most likely, which would mean they play a Quadrant 1 game in the first round of the Big East tournament. So the way I see it, Creighton is likely in with one more win this season. They’re definitely in with two.

YET TO PLAY

LSU
NEBRASKA

No. 2 Michigan State tops Illinois 81-61, seals share of title

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Miles Bridges scored 19 points, Joshua Langford had 16 and No. 2 Michigan State beat Illinois 81-61 on Tuesday night, sealing a share of the Big Ten championship.

The Spartans (27-3, 15-2 Big Ten) have won 11 straight and can claim the conference title outright if they win at Wisconsin on Sunday.

The Fighting Illini (13-16, 3-13) were coming off a win over Nebraska and looked like they were building momentum, competing well enough to trail the Spartans by just three points at halftime.

Michigan State, though, opened the second half with a 12-1 run to take control and went on to build 20-plus-point leads. The cushion allowed coach Tom Izzo to put his three seniors in and out of the game in the final minutes, giving each of them an opportunity to kiss the school’s logo at midcourt and get an ovation from the crowd.

Cassius Winston scored 12 points, Jaren Jackson had eight points and five blocks and Kenny Goins added a season-high nine points.

Illinois’ Leron Black had 20 points and Trent Frazier scored 14 on 4-of-13 shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The young team has experienced of growing pains that may serve the program well next season, when it returns almost every player on the roster.

Michigan State: Despite clinching a share of the conference championship, the Spartans have a lot to play for with an outright title at stake against the Badgers and a chance to improve their seeding for the NCAA Tournament.

SENIOR START

Izzo started Tum Tum Nairn, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter in place of Winston, Jackson and Nick Ward, who finished with eight points and seven rebounds in just 15 minutes.

UP NEXT

Illinois: Wraps up the regular season at home against Purdue on Thursday night and Sunday at Rutgers, where the Illini will have their last chance to win a road game this season.

Michigan State: At Wisconsin on Sunday.

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More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Jackson scores 18 as No. 16 Ohio State routs Rutgers 79-52

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — C.J. Jackson scored 18 points to help No. 16 Ohio State rout Rutgers 79-52 on Tuesday night.

Kaleb Wesson added 14, and Kam Williams, playing his last home game, had 13 as the Buckeyes (23-7, 14-3 Big Ten) got a feel-good win on senior night, coming on the heels of tough road losses to Penn State and Michigan that dropped them out of first place in the conference.

Corey Sanders had 12 points for the Scarlet Knights (13-17, 3-14). They’ve lost eight of their last nine games.

Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State’s best player who missed most of last season to a leg injury, continued to struggle with his shooting. After starting the month as the likely candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, he has had trouble scoring against more aggressive defenses. He had just six points against Rutgers on 3-for-11 shooting.

Bates-Diop has a year of eligibility remaining but likely will leave for the NBA. He graduated from Ohio State in December.

Jae’Sean Tate, also playing his last game at Value City Arena, had nine points and 10 rebounds.

Ohio State led 32-27 at the half. The Buckeyes had built a 19-point lead coming off an 11-0 run with 5:41 left in the half but then went cold. Rutgers put together a 16-2 run to finish the half, during which Ohio State went 1 for 8 from the floor.

But Rutgers, one of the nation’s worst offensive teams, opened the second half 1 for 8, and Ohio State took control with an 18-2 run.

BIG PICTURE

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights took advantage of a period of cold shooting by Ohio State but just didn’t have the talent to keep it up in the second half.

Ohio State: Buckeyes did what was expected against a poor team after dropping two on the road. They will need some help to win the regular-season conference title, but they’ve been one of the college basketball’s best stories this season.

UP NEXT

Rutgers: Finishes regular season Sunday at Illinois.

Ohio State: Finishes Friday at Indiana.

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More AP college basketball at http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25.