The Cincinnati Bearcats (16-3 4-2) travel to upstate New York looking for a fourth consecutive win, but need to get past conference leading Syracuse (17-1 5-0) to make it happen.
Both teams are fresh off big wins on Saturday as the Orange went into Louisville and defeated the nations #1 team while the Bearcats needed overtime and a career high 36 points from Sean Kilpatrick to hold off Marquette.
In breaking down Syracuse the numbers say they are easily one of the elite teams in the nation and at this point the clear front runner for the Big East regular season crown in their last campaign in the league before heading off to the ACC.
Of the 21 statistical categories tracked by the Big East the Orange are in the top three 14 times and are #1 in scoring offense (79.0), scoring margin (+21.2), field goal percentage defense (.354) and rebounding offense (43.2).
They do show some vulnerability on the offensive end at times as they connect on 45.7% from the floor which is 6th in the league and 32.5% from three point range to rate 10th in the conference. When they do misfire, keeping them off the offensive glass is a chore in itself as evidenced by grabbing 43.2% of their misses.
Senior guard Brandon Triche leads the way on the offensive end with 14.6 points per game on 45.3% shooting from the floor and 35.1% from long distance. Triche is a crafty veteran that has waited his turn for the Orange, and is showing off a much more developed arsenal this season both scoring and setting up others with his 3.5 assists per game.
Junior CJ Fair is the next star in a line of seemingly endless 6-foot-8 combo forwards with big time athleticism for Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim. His 13.6 ppg is second to Trice and he is the team leader in rebounding at 7.1 per. Fair is a very solid perimeter threat at 38% and if he has that aspect going it is nearly impossible to keep his scoring ability in check.
Sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams runs the show, and does it at a very high level as evidenced by his Big East leading 9.3 assists per night. While he only shoots 36.5% from the floor and 27.3% from three he is still the third leading scorer at 12.1 per game in large part because of his ability to get to the free throw line and convert at a 72.3% clip. At 6-6 he has great size for a lead guard and also uses that to his advantage on the glass where he grabs 4.9 boards a game.
A pair of big men in sophomore Rakeem Christman and freshman DeJaun Coleman round out the starting rotation for the Orange. Christmas leads the team in blocked shots and typically anchors the middle of the vaunted 2-3 Syracuse zone. Combined the duo produces 12.3 ppg and 10.3 rpg and their size on the interior is a big reason why Syracuse is the top rebounding team in the league.
The Orange bench took a big hit when 6th man and 2nd leading scorer James Southerland was suspended last week for an academic issue, but it has allowed freshman Jerami Grant an opportunity that he has taken advantage of with double digit showings in each of the two games sans Sutherland. Grant is the son of former NBA forward Harvey Grant and the younger brother of star Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant so he has the pedigree to be special down the road.
Sophomore guard Trevor Cooney is the only regular off the bench at the guard position, and he primary role is to give Triche and Carter-Williams a rest at times. He does average 4.8 ppg but is only a 28% shooter from the perimeter and has posted 2 or fewer points in three of the five Big East games for Syracuse.
Rounding out the 8 man rotation is 6-10 junior center Baye Moussa Keita. While he only plays 14.3 minutes per game he does give some offensive punch down low by connecting on 73% of his attempts from the field. He is also solid on the glass with 4.2 rpg and is a plus rim protector at the back end of the zone.
As has been the case for over three decades the Orange hang their hat on the effectiveness of the 2-3 zone on the defensive end, and it is as good as ever this season. They lead the league in FG% defense (35.8) and are second in 3 PT% defense (28.0). They are also second in steals at 10.4 a contest are third in turnovers forced at 17.6 per. Clearly they make it very difficult in every phase on the defensive end, and finding a way to consistently crack the code has been an issue for opponents all year.
With both teams coming off very emotional wins and facing travel and a quick turnaround the potential for a slow start from either is a very real possibility, but if Cashmere Wright is again sidelined with a sprained right knee the edge clearly swings to the Orange inside the Carrier Dome. You can count on the zone being shaded towards Kilpatrick all afternoon, and if Cincinnati is going to pull this one out plenty of others are going to have to step up and make plays to keep things close enough for a late push to victory.