The pack of undefeated teams in NCAA College Basketball has slimmed down to just two, and the top team in the nation, the Syracuse Orangemen (20-0, 7-0 Big East,) put their flawless season run on the line tonight in South Bend, Indiana against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (11-8, 3-3 Big East). Though Notre Dame has struggled mightily with their road form this season, with a 10-1 record on their home court at Joyce Center, there’s little doubt the Irish will have their sights firmly planted on a marquee victory over the best team in the country tonight.
Syracuse meanwhile is off to its best start under school history under head coach Jim Boeheim, and despite having only ventured away from home 4 times on the season, it’s certainly not been just the home court advantage that has boosted the Orangemen. With an average margin of victory of 13 points on the road, Syracuse has prevailed via their 2-3 zone defense, which has held their opponents to under 70 points per game while their talented veteran offense has put up just over 85 points per game in road contests (their season average is exactly 80 points/game, good for 16th in NCAA Basketball). That certainly looms large for Notre Dame tonight, as they’ll be tasked with stopping a very well balanced Syracuse starting 5, led by senior point guard Scoop Jardine (8.6 points, 4.8 assists/contest) and junior guard Brandon Triche (10.0 points, 3 assists). What the Orangemen have done very well this season is to keep their scoring options wide open, and limit the amount of load any one starter has to carry by himself. That’s evident in the fact that leading scorer Kris Joeeph is averaging just 13.7 points and 4.6 boards per outing, while 7 Syracuse players are averaging better than 7.5 points.
Though Syracuse’ rebounding prowess leaves a little to be desired at just 36.6 boards per contest (92nd in the nation), their high percentage shooting (%48.6) and adeptness at moving the ball around the court (17.3 assists/game, 9th in the nation) has them relying less on cleaning up rebounds and more on executing on offense via solid ball movement and putting pressure on opposing shooters. While Syracuse may not be especially big, they are quick, have great stamina to last through fast-paced games, and in this match-up the Orangemen will have plenty of confidence on a court where they’ve won 6 out of their last 7 meetings with the Irish, including 3 straight. Critical though for the Orangemen tonight will be to continue suppressing opponents’ scoring, which has been outstanding this season as Syracuse has allowed just 60.4 points per game. While they’ve given up about 10 more points per contest on the road, and haven’t had as much success in limiting opponent’s shooting percentage (%38.1 for the year in total, allowing almost %45 in away games), they’ve also shot better than %56 from the floor in 3 out of their 4 road games, and outshot their opponents 3 out of 4 times as well. With Notre Dame also spreading the scoring wealth around with six players averaging over 7.8 points per game, a key for Syracuse is to keep hounding all shooters, limit good looking shots as much as possible, and force Notre Dame to beat them from the perimeter. If Syracuse is able to dominate in the paint and win the shooting percentage game, they should have no trouble walking out of South Bend with a ‘W’ today.
On the Notre Dame side of the basketball, tonight’s game is a great opportunity to show that the Irish can run with the best in the nation at home, but in order for that to happen, the Irish simply have to find to generate more offense. Having failed to score above 60 points in 2012 during regulation (they beat Louisville 67-75 in 2 overtimes on January 7th), I just don’t see how Notre Dame can compete without either picking up the offensive pace, or slowing the game down enough on both offense and defense to limit the amount of scoring chances Syracuse gets. The Irish scoring attack is led by the talented senior big man Tim Abromaitis (14.0 points, 7.0 rebounds), but he has to improve on his shooting percentage tonight, as he’s averaging a poor %33.3 from the field on the year. Oddly enough though, Abromaitis is a great free-throw shooter at %88.9, so pounding the ball inside to him and having him in turn get physical with the Syracuse defense will definitely help Notre Dame put up some extra points while the clock is stopped. Improvement in shooting tonight really has to carry through the whole team though, which shoots at just %43.2 on the year (185th in the country), as without better shooting, Notre Dame can kiss this game goodbye in a hurry. Along with Abromaitis, forward Jack Cooley (10.4 points, 8.3 points, %58.5 shooting) also has to be active in the paint and be a big presence on the glass, and utilizing the 6’5″ Jerian Grant (12.8 points, 4.7 assists) around the perimeter to both feed the front court and set up for jump shots would certainly help to keep the Irish involved in this game tonight. Details aside though, it pretty much comes down to two critical areas for Notre Dame in this match-up; 1). They must find a way to win the rebounding margin (ranked 208th in the NCAA with just 34.3 boards/game) or prevail in the turnover battle, and/or, 2). the Irish must outshoot Syracuse from the floor.
Betting Lines for #1 Syracuse vs. Notre Dame at Intertops Sportsbook
Looking over the best betting lines at Intertops Sportsbook for tonight’s clash, the Syracuse Orangemen enter tonight’s road contest as heavy favorites to win, getting -490 odds on the money line while the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sit at +370 underdogs at home. Against the spread, Syracuse is an 8.5 point favorite at -110 odds, which could be very tantalizing considering they’ve won by an average of 13 points on the road so far this season. While it’s tempting to take Notre Dame to scrape by with the 8.5 points supporting them at home, the lack of offensive production has to be a bit of a turn off for the Irish pickers, even at home where they’ve gone 10-1 this season. Notable for betting against the spread in this match-up, in each of Notre Dame’s 4 losses to ranked opponents this year, they’ve failed to break through the 60 point barrier, and have lost each game by 11 points or more (the last being a 67-53 home loss to #16 UConn, their first home loss). With both teams playing good defense however, the over/under at 133 points could be a tough mark to beat, but with Syracuse averaging 85 points on the road, I like both sides to help push past 133 to make the over total points mark a good wager to chase after.
Our Pick to Win:
While Notre Dame should be playing a lock-down defensive type of game early on, Syracuse simply has too many weapons, and shoots too well on the road to give up an upset to the Fighting Irish tonight. Even if the Irish manage to outshoot the Orangemen, Syracuse will limit the amount of shots they are able to take, will likely dominate on possession time and points in the paint, and will prevent the Irish from doing much more than trying to score from the perimeter, where they are not nearly as good. Syracuse should have no issues rolling through South Bend with their 21st win on the season, and they’ll do it by a score of 79-62 to cover the points and bust through the over/under at Intertops Sportsbook.