Syracuse visits Maryland tonight for a 7 p.m. tip at Comcast Center. Before that, we checked in with John Cassillo, who writes on the Orange at Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, the network's 'Cuse destination.
TT: Syracuse and Maryland have a decent bit of athletic history and some shared story lines as programs, but they've only spent one year as ACC counterparts and won't get another. Spending so much time watching Jim Boeheim's Orange, what is your impression from afar of this Maryland team?
TNIAAM: From afar, Maryland seems like they rise and fall on the play of Dez Wells, which leads them to struggling from the floor at times. They look to have enough talent to hang with most of the ACC, but simply haven't been able to put the pieces together against the league's top teams yet. A lot of close calls for the Terps. however, which is what concerns me a bit. They've been able to stick around v. UConn, Pitt, Duke and Virginia. I wouldn't doubt them being able to do the same against the Orange.
TT: Do you miss the Big East as much as I do, or are you satisfied enough with the state of the ACC?
TNIAAM: I miss elements of the old Big East, but that league wouldn't exist under any circumstances this year. So with that considered, I'm fine with the move and satisfied with the state of the ACC right now. We've already gained something with Duke, and Saturday's matchup with Virginia should be an intense one and go a long way toward deciding who wins the regular season championship. Pitt's Pitt, and while we dislike them, it's better to have them here with us than not. Louisville's arrival next year will certainly take this league up a level and erase any concerns that there weren't enough "elite" squads this year (outside of SU, Duke and perhaps UVa).
TT: Everybody knows it hasn't been the best week for the Orange. Has anything about their outlook changed for you, or were the last two games just blips?
TNIAAM: We were playing with fire for weeks, so Syracuse was bound to see a loss or two -- just frustrating they had to come in a pair like they did, and both in such excruciating fashion. The Orange have made a habit of letting teams hang around for 35 minutes or more, and then just tearing their hearts out at the end. You can't win every game like that, though, which is how we suffered two defeats in the past six days. I still like SU's outlook for the season overall, though shooting the basketball well has become a major concern.
TT: Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair are wonderful, and some of Syracuse's other weapons like Trevor Cooney have gotten a lot of attention, too. On a team this good and high-profile, is anybody flying under the radar? Could somebody we're not expecting to be a factor do a lot of damage tonight?
TNIAAM: Anyone who's watched the Orange this year will certainly pinpoint the same names as "keys" to success, but there is another name I expect to be a big factor on Monday -- Michael Gbinije. He's functioned as a reserve at the guard and small forward spots all year, but until the Duke game, he'd only received limited burn in conference play. Against the Blue Devils (who he played for before transferring to SU), Gbinije scored eight, collected two boards and two steals in a very effective 20 minutes on the floor. He's a lengthy guy (6'7"), can help spread the floor on offense and is a better defender than Cooney. Don't be shocked to see a good amount of him tonight.
TT: I'll ask an impossible question that 95 percent of NCAA basketball coaches have failed to tackle: How can Maryland penetrate Boeheim's zone and score enough points to have a chance? Given the talent gap between the two teams, it seems like quite the task.
TNIAAM: Duke and Boston College have both done a nice job at penetrating the zone of late, so I'd consult those game tapes first and foremost. For BC, it was a drive-and-kick offense that pulled in the zone and then found the three-point shooter alone on the perimeter. But that still tasks you with hitting a good deal of threes, and even then, there has to be another element. That's where Duke excelled on Saturday and it's how they won the game (beyond our inability to make layups). They exploited Syracuse under the basket (a rarity this year), forcing both Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita into foul trouble. On top of that, they did hit their threes (which we knew they would). If Maryland can execute a similar gameplan -- attacking the paint to create space on the perimeter, and causing foul trouble for SU's big men -- they've got a chance.
TT: If Maryland's going to pull off an enormous upset, how will it happen?
TNIAAM: Kind of addressed this above: Cause foul trouble for Syracuse's bigs, since we only have two true centers. Hit threes at a decent clip. And find Trevor Cooney out of position on defense (which he will be at least a few times), which should give you some decent chances to hit open treys. Double-covering Tyler Ennis early in our offensive possessions also seemed to work effectively for Duke, so that's worth a look to disrupt SU's rhythm (barely there already).
TT: What's your game prediction?
TNIAAM: I haven't sounded overly positive in these responses, but I see Syracuse coming out angry in this one following Saturday's tough game at Duke. I think C.J. Fair has himself a great game and the Orange get back on track, albeit not without some sweating in the second half. Syracuse 65, Maryland 58: SU controls the pace and hits enough shots to win.