By Michael McAllister
The Orange advanced to the Big East Tournament semifinals with a win Thursday against rival UConn. Awaiting them is a talented Cincinnati Bearcats team that survived a two-overtime slugfest with Georgetown.
In their first meeting this year, Syracuse won at Cincinnati 60-53. The Orange played that game without Fab Melo, but Rakeem Christmas stepped up and played well against Yancy Gates. Christmas finished with four points, nine rebounds, and three blocks. This time, Gates will face the bigger, stronger Melo. Gates is coming off a 23 point, eight rebound performance where he almost single-handedly won the game over Georgetown.
Containing him inside will be a big factor, as the Bearcats lack depth and size up front. The Orange appear to have made a lineup change up front. C.J. Fair moved into the starting lineup Thursday, replacing Christmas. May believe this was due to Christmas being ineffective and lasting less than a minute into games. However, it could be that the move was made to solve the ineffectiveness of the backup center. Keita has struggled and regressed this season. Moving Fair into the lineup allows Christmas to backup Melo at center. He responded by grabbing five rebounds and blocking two shots in only eight minutes.
Cincinnati’s offensive success is predicated on their talented guards hitting their outside shots. Early in the previous matchup, outside shots were falling and the Bearcats were holding their own against the Orange. However, as shots stopped falling and the Orange defense tightened, Syracuse pulled away.
Sean Kilpatrick is the leading scorer for Cincinnati at nearly 15 points per game. He’s one of five Bearcat regulars that are shooting over 36% from beyond the arc. Cashmere Wright is shooting 38% from the outside, JaQuan Parker over 42%, and Jeremiah Davis III and Jermaine Sanders nearly 39%. The zone will be extended to limit the open looks of these shooters, which means Fab’s matchup with Gates inside will be an important factor. Four keys to an Orange victory: 1. Stay at home on Cincy’s shooters:
The Bearcat guards can shoot, but are undersized and will have trouble finishing inside against the length of Syracuse. The wings and guards must stay at home and not collapse on penetration to allow a kick out to an open jumper. 2. Force turnovers:
Cincinnati only turns it over 11 times per game. The Orange must force turnovers to get out in transition where they are maybe the best in the country. Transition buckets got Waiters going last game, and could do the same again. 3. Rebound:
Syracuse gave up 18 offensive rebounds to UConn on Thursday, and it nearly cost them. Cincinnati grabbed 13 offensive boards against Syracuse in the previous matchup. The Orange must limit Cincinnati’s second chance points by taking advantage of their size and controlling the defensive glass. 4. Contain Yancy Gates:
Gates is the Bearcates lone low-post threat. But he’s a very good one. While he’s only 6’9”, he’s big, physical, and strong. Fab will have to be smart inside against Gates and not get into foul trouble while keeping him off the glass. Christmas will play a vital role in this as well when he spells Fab.
With a win, the Orange would advance to the Big East Tournament championship game for the first time since 2009 when they lost to Louisville. They are seeking their first tournament title since the memorable 2006 Gerry McNamara run. Ironically, the Orange beat Cincinnati and UConn in that run as well.