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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.

No. 11 Kentucky struggles before putting away Missouri

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 21:  Bam Adebayo #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the first half at Rupp Arena on January 21, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Kentucky won. That’s probably all the Wildcats need to take away from their time in Columbia, Mo.

Eleventh-ranked Kentucky defeated Missouri, 72-62, in a game that was an absolute slog for the Wildcats until the final minutes offered them some separation and reprieve from the feisty but undermanned Tigers.

Missouri led throughout much of the first half, but never held an advantage after halftime. Still, the Tigers were there lurking closely for much of the final frame, something their 7-20 record would suggest they were incapable of, even at home against Kentucky on a night where the Wildcats were about as sharp as the shape of basketball itself. Which is to say, not sharp at all.

Bam Adebayo was an absolute force on the interior for Kentucky. The freshman big had 22 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the floor and a 10 of 13 mark from the free-throw line. He also had 15 rebounds and three blocks. Missouri, like plenty of other teams before them, had no answer.

The question, though, for Kentucky this night was what kept De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk from being productive? The pair struggled from start to finish, combining to go 8 of 22 overall and 2 of 7 from deep along with five turnovers. Making matters even worse was Isaiah Briscoe’s night. He shot it fine (4 of 6) but had six turnovers in 23 minutes.

It just wasn’t pretty for the Wildcats.

Overall, Kentucky went 5 of 18 from deep and had 17 turnovers, allowing one of the SEC’s cellar dwellers to make things interesting until the Wildcats were able to put the Tigers at arm’s length in the final few minutes.

It’s certainly not an inspiring performance from Kentucky, but against Missouri on the road, it’s not exactly surprising to seem them come with something less than their best. It can probably be excused to circumstance rather than anything more serious.

For Missouri, it was a missed opportunity to add some sort of silver lining to yet another dismal season under Kim Anderson. The third-year coach probably wouldn’t have improved his job prospects much with a win over Kentucky – things have been too bad for too long for one game to move the needle – but it still would have been nice for Missouri after so much misery, you know? But, alas, the game ended like most of them have for the Tigers in recent years, with a loss.

Now, Kentucky heads into Saturday’s matchup against No. 13 Florida with the regular-season SEC title – and some pride – on the line. The Gators whipped the Wildcats by 22 in Gainesville earlier this month, and both teams will enter Rupp Arena with matching 13-2 SEC records.

Both teams will have two games remaining after Saturday, but it would appear to mere formalities for both. Whoever wins Saturday almost certainly will win the conference outright.

Cline’s 3-pointers lift No. 14 Purdue over Penn State

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - JANUARY 21: Isaac Haas #44, Carsen Edwards #3, Caleb Swanigan #50 and Vince Edwards #12 of the Purdue Boilermakers react in the second half of the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Mackey Arena on January 21, 2017 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue defeated Penn State 77-52. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Accustomed to dominating in stretches lately, the 14th-ranked Purdue Boilermakers found themselves on the other end of a big score and needed a savior against a gritty Penn State team on Tuesday night.

Enter Ryan Cline.

The guard scored six of his 11 points in overtime to lift Purdue to a 74-70 victory over the Nittany Lions in a game the Boilermakers led for just 9:16.

“It rarely happens where a team outplays another one, plays harder and they lose the game especially on their home court,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “Thank the Lord Cline knocked those two shots down.”

Cline’s consecutive 3-pointers secured his team’s sixth straight win and snapped the Nittany Lions’ four-game winning streak against Top 25 teams visiting the Bryce Jordan Center.

Vincent Edwards added 14 points, Isaac Haas chipped in 13 and Dakota Mathias scored 12 for the Boilermakers (23-5, 12-3 Big Ten) who trailed 33-29 at halftime.

Tony Carr scored 21 points, Lamar Stevens added 18 and Mike Watkins finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds for Penn State (14-14, 6-9). The Nittany Lions owned the paint, even against Purdue’s towering bigs — 6-foot-8 Caleb Swanigan and the 7-2 Haas — where Penn State owned a 46-12 edge.

But the Nittany Lions couldn’t get deep shots to fall. They finished just 2 for 18 from 3-point range.

“That was as hard as we’ve played all year,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “Proud of my team. However, there’s no more moral victories here. We’ve got to get some things done. We’ve got to close out games.”

Penn State led for all but 7:35 of regulation and by as many as 10 points midway through the first half. But they surrendered the lead on a dunk by Haas with 10:13 left. The Nittany Lions used a 10-2 run and four straight baskets from Carr to send the game into overtime where Cline found his shot.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: The Boilermakers cooled off after a recent hot streak saw them dominate for large stretches of games. Purdue’s five-game winning streak entering the night included wins over Michigan State, Rutgers and Northwestern, all by at least 17 points.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions are still looking to eclipse their combined win total in January and February under Chambers. Penn State won six games for their best stretch in the two-month span a year ago and will have two more tries to surpass last year’s mark.

LOOSE GUARDS

Painter wasn’t happy with his guard play for much of the game. He sensed confusion from his backcourt and it cost them in the form of turnovers. Ten of Purdue’s 17 giveaways were committed by guards.

“Our guard play and overall ball control, there’s no question, there were times they were hesitant,” Painter said.

BIG MAN BATTLE

As Chambers spoke with reporters, he guessed Watkins was sitting in the locker room with nothing left in the tank.

“He’s exhausted in that locker room,” Chambers said. “He battled. He went toe-to-toe with a potential lottery pick and a potential first-rounder some day in Haas because I think Haas is a pro.”

Watkins was outmuscled in his first game against Purdue’s sizable forwards when he scored just six points and grabbed only three rebounds earlier this season. He had 12 rebounds in the first half — including three straight offensive midway through the first half — that brought the crowd to a roar when he finally drew a foul and made two free throws.

SHOT CLOCK ISSUE

A shot clock mishap cost the Nittany Lions a possession in overtime. With 13 seconds left and Purdue up 72-70, Haas took a jumper and missed close to the rim with the shot clock waning. It would have run out had Shep Garner not fouled P.J. Thompson immediately afterward, however.

Chambers said he thought Garner might have believed Haas’ shot hit the rim. Instead, Thompson made both free throws to put the game out of reach.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Purdue survived a scare and its place in the poll should remain safe.

UP NEXT

Purdue plays at Michigan on Friday.

Penn State travels to Minnesota on Friday.

VIDEO: Mizzou fans chant ‘Cal you suck’ during interview, Calipari ignores question about it

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts against the Michigan State Spartans in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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This is so great and so awkward.

Let’s set the stage: No. 13 Kentucky played a pretty terrible half of basketball at Missouri, heading into halftime up just 31-30 after trailing late in the half.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari was clearly not happy about it and ripped his team in the halftime interview … while the Missouri student section chants “Cal, you suck,” which is completely audible on the broadcast. Laura Rutledge, the SEC Network sideline reporter, asks him about it, and he ghosts her.

Cal is not here for your jokes.

No. 13 Florida continues hot streak with win over South Carolina

Florida forward Devin Robinson (1) celebrates with guard KeVaughn Allen (5) as South Carolina guards PJ Dozier (15) and Hassani Gravett (2) walk up court after a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Gainesville, Fla. Florida won 81-66. (AP Photo/Matt Stamey)
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Things keep rolling for Florida, all the way to a nine-game winning streak and a de facto SEC regular season championship game in Lexington this weekend.

The Gators’ offense was lethally efficient and its defense stout in their 81-66 over South Carolina on Tuesday to likely end the Gamecocks’ long-shot SEC title aspirations while seriously bolstering their own chances.

Florida did its damage offensively in some of the most productive ways possible. The Gators connected from deep and converted from the free-throw line.  From distance, they were 9 of 19 (47.4 percent), and from the charity stripe, they were 22 of 27 (81.5 percent). That’s a winning formula almost every night out.

Maybe most encouraging for Florida was the return to dynamism of KeVaughn Allen. The sophomore guard had his best game in weeks, going 5 of 7 from the field – including 3 of 5 from distance – and got to the line for 14 attempts, making 13. Allen hasn’t been able to get to the free-throw line with a ton of consistency – his free-throw rate is only 23.7 – but he has shown some flashes of forcing his way there recently with 14 tonight and 10 a week ago at Auburn. If he can even approach those numbers with regularity, it’ll be a huge boon for the 87.5 percent free-throw shooter. It should be a priority for him.

The offensive outburst by Allen and the Gators at large was especially impressive coming against a South Carolina team that possesses one of the country’s stingiest defenses. The Gamecocks are typically great at making life at the 3-point arc difficult for opponents, but Florida shredded them there.

Converting from the 3-point line certainly helped cover for the absence of 6-foot-11 center John Egbunu, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week. Devin Robinson picked up the most slack inside, blocking three shots and grabbing six rebounds, and South Carolina wasn’t really able to do much damage on the offensive glass.

With its defense taking an atypical beating, South Carolina’s offense exhibited the issues that have plagued it all season long. The Gamecocks were 3 of 14 (21.4 percent) from 3-point range, and the lack of threats along the arc shrunk their spacing and allowed Florida to harass them inside. If the offense is going to be stifled – which it probably will be more often than not with an average effective field goal percentage ranked outside the top-300 nationally – the defense has to be elite, which it was far from against Florida.

South Carolina now finds itself in a bit of a precarious, if manageable, position. The Gamecocks have lost three-straight, not something a team that is doesn’t have a 100 percent secure position in the NCAA tournament. Yes, South Carolina has a solid resume, but this is sliding in the wrong direction at the worst time. The good news is that the final three games of the regular season – vs. Tennessee, vs. Mississippi State and at Mississippi – are wholly manageable. The bad news is a stumble against any of those teams isn’t going to be looked upon with much favor by the selection committee.

The big picture for Florida is much rosier. The Gators, as noted above, are steamrolling through the final stretch of the season. They’re staking their claim to a top-three tourney seed, and will have a chance to come very close to claiming regular season SEC superiority Saturday as well.

Florida, which blasted Kentucky 88-66 earlier this month, travels to Rupp Arena to take on the No. 11 Wildcats. Both teams will be sporting 13-2 conference records (assuming Kentucky gets by/doesn’t implode at Missouri tonight) with two games left on the schedule after Saturday in which they’ll both be heavy favorites. Even if Kentucky can’t leave Columbia with a win (pause for laughter), a conference championship – whether outright or shared – will be on the line.

It might not garner the same fervor as the one played in December at the Georgia Dome, but there’s going to be a heck of an SEC title game this weekend.

No. 9 Baylor holds on 60-54 over Oklahoma to stay in 2nd

WACO, TX - JANUARY 17:  Head coach Scott Drew of the Baylor Bears in the first half at Ferrell Center on January 17, 2017 in Waco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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WACO, Texas — Johnathan Motley had 21 points with 16 rebounds and No. 9 Baylor ended a two-game slide with a 60-54 victory over Oklahoma on Tuesday night to remain in a tie for second place in the Big 12.

Baylor almost blew all of a 15-point lead in the second half, and held on even after not making a field goal in the last 6 minutes

Oklahoma used a 21-8 run to get within 49-47 on Jamuni McNeace’s jumper with 9:21 left. But Manu Lecomte then hit consecutive 3-pointers for the Bears, though those were more than 2 minutes apart and their last field goals.

The Bears (23-5, 10-5) stayed even with No. 12 West Virginia and Iowa State in the conference standings with three games left in the regular season. Baylor’s Big 12 title hopes likely ended with a 67-65 home loss Saturday to No. 3 Kansas (24-3, 12-2).

Kansas, which is home Wednesday night against TCU, is one win from guaranteeing at least a share of its 13th consecutive Big 12 title.

Kameron McGusty had 13 points to lead the Sooners (9-18, 3-12), and was the only one of seven players who scored in their big run to make multiple baskets. His 3-pointer started the big spurt.

Lecomte finished with 11 points, while Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. had 11 points and nine rebounds for Baylor.

Oklahoma’s only lead in the first half came when Rashard Odomes converted a three-point play for a 3-2 lead only 45 seconds into the game. Motley made a tying free throw right after that before Lual-Acuil’s jumper made it 5-3.

The Sooners had scoring droughts of 5 and 3 minutes in the first half, when Lecomte, Lual-Acuil and King McClure all had 3-pointers in an 11-0 Baylor spurt that made it 22-7.

BIG PICTURE

Oklahoma: Lon Kruger will have to wait until another game for a chance to get his 600th career victory. After an NCAA Final Four appearance last season, these young Sooners, with 11 underclassmen and less than two weeks after losing senior Jordan Woodard to a torn ACL, still have some work to do to avoid the team’s first last-place finish in the Big 12.

Baylor: The Bears again made things much harder on themselves than necessary, though they did hold on to win this time. After taking a 41-26 lead early in the second half following a 3 by Motley, the Bears couldn’t build on that momentum and were in a struggle for much of the second half. Baylor was outscored 8-0 in the last 3 1/2 minutes of their home loss to Kansas on Saturday.

UP NEXT

Oklahoma: Home against Kansas State, the alma mater of Kruger, a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year for the Wildcats in 1973 and 1974.

Baylor: At Iowa State on Saturday. The Bears beat Iowa State 65-63 in their first Big 12 home game Jan. 4.