Wright on Villanova-Syracuse: 'These guys live for games like this'
Villanova and Syracuse split last year's season series in the rivals' final campaign together in the Big East. (USA Today Images)
Our resident college basketball junkies, CSN producers Brian Brennan and Sean Kane, make their predictions for this weekend's City 6 games. Look for Fastbreak Friday on CSNPhilly.com each Friday for the remainder of the season.
No. 8 Villanova (11-0) at No. 2 Syracuse (11-0)
Saturday, 2 p.m., CBS
SK: This is as big as it gets when it comes to college basketball in late December. Two undefeated teams. Two teams ranked in the Top 10. Two teams renewing a rivalry for the first time as non-conference opponents. Villanova and Syracuse banged heads for more than three decades in the former Big East, often twice and sometimes three times a year. After Syracuse left the Big East for the ACC last summer, Jim Boeheim and Jay Wright decided to keep this rivalry alive. They'll play Saturday at the Carrier Dome, next season at the Wells Fargo Center, and the following season at Madison Square Garden. It was a wise decision. In an era in which countless basketball rivalries take a backseat to football-driven conference realignment, this rivalry lives on. And it promises to deliver an exciting new chapter Saturday afternoon in upstate New York (see preview).
In typical Boeheim fashion, Syracuse hasn't missed a beat since the departure of last season's starting backcourt of Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. The Orange plugged in freshman Tyler Ennis (younger brother of Villanova's Dylan Ennis) at point guard and long-range sniper Trevor Cooney at the other guard spot. Ennis doesn't get mentioned with the likes of Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Andrew Wiggins, but he's playing as well as any freshman in the country. Ennis is averaging more than 12 points, five assists and close to three steals per game while shooting better than 43 percent from three-point range. Senior forward C.J. Fair is Syrause's best player and leading scorer at 17.8 points per game, but Ennis is the key to the Orange's attack. His ability to handle Villanova's vaunted three-quarter court pressure will go a long way in determining the outcome on Saturday.
In addition to creating turnovers, shot selection will be key for Villanova. Against Syracuse's 2-3 zone, the temptation has always been to beat it by shooting over it. That's exactly what Boeheim wants teams to do. While the Wildcats have a number of capable outside shooters, they'd be wise to run their offense through JayVaughn Pinkston on Saturday. Get Pinkston the ball at the elbows and down on the baseline and let him to go to work against the zone. If Pinkston gets enough touches, he'll do considerable damage both scoring himself and creating wide open three-point looks for his teammates.
Villanova won't be fazed by 35,000 orange-clad fans or Boeheim's patented 2-3 zone. This road trip and this opponent are old hat to the Villanova program, and contrary to popular belief, the Carrier Dome hasn't been a house of horrors for the Wildcats under Wright. The Villanova head coach is 5-4 against Syracuse at the Dome in his career. There's been a lot of discussion about Saturday's game being Villanova's toughest test of the season, about this being the Wildcats' first true road test. That's all well and good, but make no mistake -- this will be Syracuse's toughest test of the season by a wide margin. The Orange's most impressive wins have been over Minnesota and Baylor. Villanova is on another level compared to those opponents. Saturday's game figures to come down to the final few minutes, and I expect Villanova's veterans to make enough winning plays to get the job done.
Villanova 77, Syracuse 73
Penn (2-7) at Rider (5-5)
SK: In this column a week ago, I predicted Penn would go to Marist and collect its third win of the season. Instead, the Quakers dug a 23-point hole in the first half before losing, 76-62, to a team that entered the game with a 2-9 record. These are trying times indeed for Jerome Allen's program. Penn simply cannot score consistently enough to beat good teams, particularly on the road.
The Quakers were picked second in the Ivy League preseason poll largely because of their explosive backcourt tandem of Miles Jackson-Cartwright and Tony Hicks. It's been a struggle for Hicks, who is averaging just eight points in Penn's last three games. Jackson-Cartwright hasn't been much better, scoring a little over 10 points per outing in his last four games. These two need to step up their production if the Quakers are going to start finding their way this season.
Given that Penn was embarrassed at Marist a week ago, I can't see them regrouping to beat Rider on the road on Sunday. Rider is a balanced team with four players averaging double figures. The Quakers won't be up to the task in this matchup.
Rider 72, Penn 59
Buffalo (5-4) at Drexel (8-3)
Sunday, 2 p.m.
BB: The Dragons continue to show they are resilient above all else, bouncing back nicely from a lopsided loss to St. Joe’s to take care of business against St. Francis (Pa.) last Sunday. Drexel has only two games left before CAA play begins, beginning with a visit from first-year head coach Bobby Hurley (yes, that Bobby Hurley) and Buffalo on Sunday afternoon.
Drexel’s biggest task will be slowing down Buffalo big man Javon McCrea, one of the top double-double threats in the country. The 6-foot-7 McCrea is on pace to become Buffalo’s first 2,000-point scorer and already has five double-doubles in nine games this season. Dartaye Ruffin has done an admirable job defending opposing big men this season, and he’ll get the first shot at slowing down McCrea. Ruffin and Kaz Abif also have to keep McCrea from hurting Drexel on the glass. Abif is beginning to emerge for the Dragons, leading the team with a pair of double-doubles and averaging 8.1 rebounds per game.
The three-point line should also be a major factor on Sunday. Drexel has a hard time scoring when the threes aren’t falling, so a big game from Chris Fouch would help open things up. Fouch is shooting only 30.9 percent from beyond the arc this season, but he’s been much better throughout his career at Drexel (35.7). The Dragons are 4-1 when Fouch makes at least three three-point field goals in a game, with the only loss coming in overtime against No. 1 Arizona. He and Frantz Massenat have to knock down enough long-range shots to keep Buffalo’s defense from packing the lane and denying driving opportunities.
This is a game in which Drexel’s senior backcourt has to assert itself. If McCrea is clearly the best player on the floor, Buffalo has a great shot to leave the DAC with a win. But I expect both Fouch and Massenat to play well against a Buffalo team that allows over 70 points per game.
Drexel 76, Buffalo 66
Boston University (7-5) at Saint Joseph’s (5-4)
Sunday, 4 p.m.
BB: The Hawks have to be feeling good about themselves after a pair of double-digit wins in their last two games, but I’m sure Phil Martelli is still plenty nervous about Sunday’s visit from Boston University. The Terriers are a dangerous opponent, coming off a road win at Maryland, and may be the favorite to win the Patriot League. Chester native and Archbishop Carroll alum D.J. Irving leads the way for the Terriers. The 6-foot guard scored 25 points in just 22 minutes against the Terps and would love a similar showing at Hagan Arena against St. Joe’s.
If recent series history means anything, Langston Galloway should be in for a huge afternoon on Sunday. BU and St. Joe’s split a pair of meetings in 2010 and 2011, and Galloway went off in both games, combining for 54 points on 63 percent shooting while connecting on 12 three-pointers. When he has it going, the Hawks are difficult to stop, especially with their variety of offensive options. In the last two wins, Halil Kanacevic and Ronald Roberts took turns carrying the scoring load. DeAndre Bembry and Chris Wilson each had big games as well. Perhaps this will be Galloway’s turn to lead the way.
I like the way the Hawks are playing with Atlantic 10 play right around the corner. I think St. Joe’s will have too many weapons for the Terriers, but the Hawks have shown a propensity to struggle in close games. If this is a tight one in the final minutes, I don’t have a ton of faith in St. Joe’s to pull it out.
Saint Joseph’s 74, Boston University 64
Last week: 4-2