A couple of Big East Conference programs hoping to play just the required 40 minutes hit the hardwood at the Wells Fargo Center in south Philadelphia tonight, as the Villanova Wildcats entertain the Syracuse Orange.
Up in the Carrier Dome, this matchup has played to record crowds the last couple of years and the Philadelphia version should have no trouble living up to the hype as both programs continue to jockey for position in the upper-half of the conference standings.
On Saturday afternoon, the Orange entertained the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at home and were taken to overtime before coming up with the 84-80 win. The victory was the second in a row for Syracuse, but just the fourth in the last 10 games overall, and with a mark of 9-6 in conference play the Orange is currently seventh in the standings. Syracuse raised more than a few eyebrows by cruising through its non-conference schedule with a 13-0 mark, but Big East opponents have proven to be a different animal altogether and now the team is starting to find that out on a regular basis.
Like Syracuse, the Wildcats also had to play an extra five-minute frame on Saturday as they managed to bounce back and force overtime against an upstart DePaul squad which only recently snapped a lengthy losing streak in conference play. It wasn't pretty, but Villanova was able to squeeze out a 77-75 win on the road in Chicago, the team's second straight win which moved the squad to 9-5 in conference and into a three-way tie for fourth place in the standings with Louisville and a surprising St. John's group.
The Wildcats won the first meeting of the season up in New York by a score of 83-72 last month in front of a crowd numbering more than 33,000. In that contest, 'Nova had four starters score in double figures, led by Maalik Wayns with 21 points, while the hosts were paced by Kris Joseph with a game-high 23 points and Rick Jackson who recorded a double-double with 16 points and a game-high 15 rebounds. In addition to being goaded into 15 turnovers, Syracuse was also outscored at the free-throw line by a 22-8 margin. With the setback, the Orange saw their advantage in the all-time series shrink to 35-31.
Kris Joseph was the leading scorer for the Orange against Rutgers on Saturday afternoon with his 21 points, adding eight rebounds and four assists, but the bigger star for the hosts was Rick Jackson who recorded his 17th double-double of the season with 18 points and a team-best 12 rebounds. Granted, Jackson didn't do so well at the free-throw line (10-of-17), but he made up for it with seven blocked shots and his mere presence around the rim at the defensive end of the floor. Brandon Triche and C.J. Fair both contributed 17 points and combined for 14 boards as Syracuse outscored the Scarlet Knights at the foul line by a staggering 34-9 margin. Joseph continues to lead the team in scoring with his 15.0 ppg, trying his best to be a perimeter threat for the Orange with his 38.6 percent accuracy on the outside. Working the paint is Jackson's job, with his 13.0 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, the latter number putting him in a group with the top rebounders in the nation right now. In fact, Jackson has been so dominant for Syracuse in this area that he has more offensive rebounds (104) than all but two of his teammates have total at this stage of the campaign. While he might not always have flashy scoring numbers, Scoop Jardine (12.2 ppg) is the one who keeps the players on their toes, having delivered a team-best 165 assists and making 47 steals.
Corey Fisher was all over the floor for the Wildcats on Saturday afternoon, handling the ball on offense and finding cracks in the DePaul defense as he finished with a season-high 34 points in the two-point overtime win versus the Blue Demons at Allstate Arena. Fisher, who knocked down the game-tying three with five seconds to play in the second half to send the meeting into overtime to begin with, was credited with a couple of steals in overtime and several successful free throws as he worked through an exhausting 35 minutes of action. Fisher knocked down 11 of 18 from the floor, 5 of 8 beyond the arc and 7 of 9 at the charity stripe, matching the efforts of Maalik Wayns (17 points) at the line. Mouphtaou Yarou was again at center for the Wildcats and produced 12 points and 15 rebounds for the visitors. With Corey Stokes on the bench with turf toe, that means the 'Cats are having to find a replacement for his 14.6 ppg and 41.5 percent shooting behind the three-point line.
Fisher is trying to fill the gap with 16.3 ppg and 39.1 percent accuracy from beyond the arc, all while handing out a team-high 134 assists, but there's only so much a point guard can do. Wayns (13.4 ppg), outside of his mere 24.2 percent shooting beyond the arc, has been a great complement to Fisher with his 125 assists, which means defenses have to be on their toes when both guards are operating on the perimeter. Stokes could be back tonight, and his return would certainly give the Wildcats a boost.
With one of the better defenses in the Big East, holding opponents to just 39.5 percent shooting from the field and 29.7 percent beyond the arc, there's no doubt that the Wildcats are capable of holding down the Orange, but intangibles such as revenge will be a factor in tonight's matchup for the visitors.