No. 2 Syracuse hosts No. 8 Villanova in a battle of undefeated teams

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When Syracuse announced its decision to move to the ACC back in September 2012, there were a couple match-ups that the program hoped would carry over as non-conference games. The Orange set up home-and-home series with St. John’s and Villanova, and at some point (we hope) they’ll resume on-court hostilities with Georgetown. On Saturday afternoon the Wildcats will invade the Carrier Dome, with the game being a matchup of teams ranked in the Top 10 and neither having lost a game.

Jay Wright’s Wildcats being undefeated is the bigger surprise of the two, with their run including a win over Kansas in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis last month. Five players are averaging at least nine points per game, with junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston leading the way at 16.5 ppg. But if there’s one player whose improvement mirrors that of the Wildcats to date it would have to be senior James Bell (15.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who’s raised his scoring by nearly seven points from a season ago and is also the team’s leading rebounder.

Villanova’s skilled offensively and tenacious defensively, and they’ll use that ball pressure to pester Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. Ennis has proven to be a cool customer at the point for the Orange, displaying the proper balance between looking for his shot and making sure talented scorers such as C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant and Trevor Cooney get their looks as well. On the season Ennis is averaging 5.4 assists and 1.9 turnovers per game, with his assist-to-turnover ratio ranking third in the ACC.

So what will the keys be on Saturday afternoon? The most obvious key is how Villanova deals with Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. The Orange don’t have the length at the two guard spots that they normally enjoy, but Ennis and Cooney have done a good job of making up for that with activity. They’ll challenge the looks that Villanova gets, and a key for Ryan Arcidiacono and his teammates will be to avoid getting suckered into those “fool’s gold” attempts. The longer than normal look that falls in the first half cannot seduce Villanova into ignoring areas such as the high post when it comes to attacking the zone, because if that is the case they’ll be in trouble.

But given the history of the two programs there will be familiarity on both sides. For Syracuse, their work on the glass could have a major impact on the outcome. To this point in the season the Orange have rebounded 40.5% of their missed shots, with Villanova limiting teams to an offensive rebounding percentage of 29.2%. If Pinkston, Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu can keep Syracuse off the offensive glass (five players are averaging at least 1.6 offensive rebounds per game) they can win. That’s a tough task for Villanova but it’s clearly one they can accomplish.

Two former Big East rivals and the matchup of the brothers Ennis (Tyler’s older brother Dylan is a key reserve for Villanova) means that this game won’t lack for story lines. But the biggest story line is that both teams enter without a loss, and the winner will have another statement victory to add to its resume.

As good as they’ve been, No. 3 Michigan State has yet to play their best

Bryn Forbes, Ryan Fazekas
Associated Press
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Sunday night’s Wooden Legacy title game matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and Providence was billed as a matchup of the nation’s two best players, and rightfully so. Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine (17 points, six rebounds, five assists), who already has two triple-doubles to his credit this season, and Providence redshirt junior Kris Dunn (21 points, five rebounds, seven assists) have more than lived up to the preseason expectations and more of the same was expected in Anaheim.

And while both had their moments, it was Michigan State’s supporting cast that made the difference in their 77-64 victory. The scary thing for future opponents on Michigan State’s schedule is that Tom Izzo’s team is nowhere near being a finished product.

With Valentine dealing with first-half foul trouble Bryn Forbes stepped up, scoring 13 of his 18 points to help the Spartans take a two-point lead into the half. As for the 11-0 run that Michigan State produced to take control of the game late, a host of players stepped forward in regards to scoring, rebounding and defending.

Freshmen Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid combined to score nine points over the final 5:32, with transfer guard Eron Harris adding six of his 12 points during that stretch. The Spartans outscored the Friars, who aren’t as deep, 22-7 during that stretch to close out the game, hunting for quality shots and hitting the offensive glass while making things difficult for Providence on the other end of the floor.

The end result was a final margin that does not indicate just how close the game was. While Providence seemed to run out of steam Michigan State received contributions from multiple players, which is undoubtedly a good sign for this group moving forward.

The Spartans will return the currently injured Gavin Schilling later this season, giving them another big man alongside Davis, Matt Costello and Colby Wollenman. He was a player they missed Sunday night, as he can defend opposing big men both in the post and on the perimeter. His absence was a main reason Michigan State didn’t have an answer for Providence’s Ben Bentil (20 points, seven rebounds) defensively.

The key for this group is going to end up being role definition, which is especially true in the case of Harris. A transfer from West Virginia, Harris came to East Lansing with the reputation of being a big time scorer. He’s struggled through the first two weeks of the season, but he got on a roll on Sunday night, finishing with 12 points, three boards and three assists. He showed he’s capable of doing a variety of things on the perimeter, and fitting into a “Swiss army knife” kind of role would make Michigan State that much more dangerous.

There’s no denying that Michigan State has been one of the nation’s best teams thus far.

But there’s also no denying that the Spartans have yet to hit their ceiling, which is definitely a positive moving forward.

Wichita State’s Anton Grady returns home with team

AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.
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Wichita State forward Anton Grady was released from a hospital in Orlando on Sunday afternoon in time to return home with his Shocker teammates.

Grady suffered a spinal corn concussion on Friday when he collided head-first with an Alabama defender, snapping his head sharply to the side. He lay on the court motionless for 10 minutes after the injury and was taken off the floor on a stretcher.

[RELATED: Can WSU still make tourney?]

“I want to send out a big thank you to Shocker Nation and all of my friends and family for of the love and encouragement that I have received the past few days,” Grady said in a statement on Sunday morning. “I’ve been reading your tweets and posts and appreciate every last one of them. I have a lot of work to do to get back on the court, but with the help of such a great support system, I’m ready for the challenge.”

By Friday night, Grady had feeling in all of his extremities, but he has a long road of rehab ahead of him.