#2 Syracuse Takes to the Road Against #24 Louisville in …

The 24th ranked Louisville Cardinals (20-5, 8-4 Big East) will host the #2 Syracuse Orangemen (25-1, 12-1 Big East) for an exciting Big East clash at 7:00 PM ET at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Cardinals haven’t had the best of success this year against top-ranked teams, with their only win against a Top 25 opponent coming back on December 2nd at home over then-#19 Vanderbilt (who are now unranked). However, coming into tonight’s contest on 6 straight wins, all against Big East competition, the Cardinals are experiencing a regeneration of confidence after a run of poor form that saw them drop 5 of 7 previous games including losses to then-#12 Georgetown, #1 Kentucky, and then #22 Marquette. Plummeting quickly after reaching as high as #4 with a 12-0 start, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino has gone back to the drawing board and seems to have found a simple solution to getting back to early season form; practice, practice and more practice for his youth-laden squad. While being plagued with injuries and consequently having as many as 8 players miss time through the middle of the season (including two who are out for the year), just getting consistent improvement and execution during practice sessions with a core group of players has produced a resurgence in form for the Cardinals, as has getting better efforts from a talented flock of underclassmen including freshmen Wayne Blackshear (13.0 points, 4 rebounds/game) and Chane Behanan (9.4 points, 7.8 rebounds) and sophomores Gorgui Dieng (10.1 points, 9.2 rebounds) and Russ Smith (12.3 points 2.7 rebounds). There’s no doubt that the inexperience of the Louisville youth movement has played a part in their inconsistent play through the middle of the season as the weight of carrying the team has fallen on the younger players, but there’s also no doubt that once fully comfortable and playing well as a team together, Louisville has tons of upside for years to come and will for tonight present plenty of issues for the visiting Syracuse Orangemen this evening.

Now sitting on 4 conference losses with just 6 games to go, the thought of nabbing a Big East title may be a bit out of reach, but that doesn’t mean the Cardinals won’t be anxious to give plenty of trouble to Syracuse, whom they meet twice over the last 6 games remaining on the regular season schedule. Louisville has been surprisingly dominant over the Jim Boeheim-coached Syracuse Orangemen, besting them 7 straight times, and so for Syracuse to finally get the better of them, they are going to need to play solid basketball in a number of areas in the game, starting with getting the scoring going early. While Syracuse continues to work their 2-3 zone scheme on defense, which has effectively worked to slow down fast-paced, high scoring offenses, they’ve shown themselves to have vulnerabilities when opposing teams do the same to them. If you look down the Orangemen’s schedule of games this year, obviously the one loss at Notre Dame stands out (where Syracuse was held to just 58 points, almost 20 under their season average), but you’ll notice that when Syracuse fails to meet their average scoring production (77.8 points/game), the games are much, much closer. In fact, in 16 wins where Syracuse has scored 75 or more points, they are winning by 22.68 points. In the 9 wins where they scored under 75 points, they have won by an average of 6 points. Against Louisville, which prides itself on defense and is getting more consistent play from their underclassmen, pace is critical and Syracuse must come out shooting the ball well and pushing up court in transition play.

The Orangemen are fortunate in the fact that they have solid scoring depth this season, with 7 players averaging 7.2 points per game or better, but a couple of players really need to stand up in tonight’s game for Syracuse to get the ball moving and generate points on fast breaks. That points to Scoop Jardine (8.7 points, 4.9 assists) and Brandon Triche (9.7 points, 2.9 assists), who have been good this year at running the offense and providing veteran leadership, but have also fallen off their scoring pace, with Jardine’s production down almost 4 points per contest, and Triche’s production inconsistent from game to game. Triche hasn’t scored in double figures over his last 3 games, failing to shoot better than 40 percent during that time. Jardine also went through a 3-game stint without hitting double digits on offense, including an awful showing against the defensive-minded Georgetown in which he was 1-7 shooting with 3 points, but in a good sign for the senior guard coming into tonight, Saturday’s game against UConn saw him shoot lights out at 8-9 from the floor, 4-4 from 3-point range, and putting down 21 points and 6 assists overall. At least one of these two leaders needs to have a good shooting night, and both of them have to be the driving force of a fast-paced Syracuse attack. If the Orangemen get bogged down against a Louisville team that also likes to play zone defense, and is forced to rely more on outside shooting, we’ll very likely see one of those games for Syracuse where the score is low, and the margin of victory (or possibly defeat) is very close.

While Louisville faces a similar challenge in trying to break through a tough zone defense, and could be forced to resort to more outside shooting, they are going to have confidence in the fact that senior court general Kyle Kuric (team leader in scoring at 13.2 points) has had lots of success firing away from deep against Syracuse, dropping in 9 of 13 shots against Syracuse in his last two games while averaging 22.5 points in those contests. Though his 3-pt consistency has fallen this season versus last (from %44.9 to %36.3) as he’s had to shoulder more of the outside shooting load (averaging 1.2 more 3-pointers per game in 2011-12), his confidence against Syracuse should be a big factor heading into tonight’s match-up, and for Louisville to have a chance at winning he’ll have to be on point from outside the arc as the Cardinals are not a good 3-point shooting team overall (32.8 percent on the year). While the team as a whole must shoot much better in tonight’s game than their season average (%43.8 percent to ‘Cuse’s %48.1), the outside shots are extremely critical. In the one loss we can look at for the Orangemen, Notre Dame shot at exactly 50 percent from the floor (20-40), and 50 percent from 3-point land (8-16). As Syracuse is bigger, more physical and more experienced, Louisville will inevitably be forced to take plenty of outside shots this evening, and must move the ball well, find open shooters, and get a huge game once more out of Kyle Kuric to give the rest of the Cards confidence.

Betting Lines for #24 Louisville hosting #2 Syracuse at Oddsmaker Sportsbook

The betting lines for tonight’s match-up certainly take into account the past success that Rick Pitino’s teams have had against Syracuse, as despite the inexperience of Louisville and their lack of proven play against top-ranked opponents, the Cardinals come in at just a slight +130 underdog on the money line. Syracuse as visitor takes -150 odds to win straight up, and against the spread, just 3 points separate the two teams, with +3 points on Louisville (-110 odds), and -3 points towards Syracuse (-110 odds). The over/under on tonight’s match-up sits at 138.0, which takes into account the possibility of lower scoring due to both sides’ likelihood of playing slower-paced basketball in the face of zone defense.

Our Pick to Win:

This game is certainly interesting from a trends standpoint, as Louisville is 6-0-1 against the spread in the last 7 meetings with Syracuse, all victories, and are 5-0 at home for straight up wagers on the Cardinals over the Orangemen. However, Syracuse has beat the spread 6 times in 7 games on the road this season, while Louisville is just 7-6-1 against the spread at home this year. They have the exact same mark for the over/under at home as well, while Syracuse is 4-2-1 pushing over on the road.

In a game that should feature plenty of tight defense, and could find both teams struggling for good looks at the basket, we’re looking out for a tight finish and a contest that fall short of the over/under tonight, as both teams struggle to clip the 70 point mark in this match-up. While Louisville has had an edge against Syracuse over the past 7 meetings, the depth and experience of this year’s Syracuse team will be enough to push them past the Cardinals with a win tonight. We’ll look for the Orangemen to just barely cover the spread set at -3 points, and in a close, exciting Big East match-up, Syracuse wins 68-64.

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