Saturday, February 14, 2009

Saturday Preview -- The Syracuse Game

Did I ever tell you how I feel about Syracuse?

The Syracuse game, every year, reminds me why it's a bad idea to root for teams. I've given up all of my childhood sports-fan allegiances (largely because I became a professional sportswriter and sort of had to), but I remain a depressingly devoted fan of my alma mater's men's basketball team, and once or twice (or sometimes three times) a year the Syracuse game reminds me why I enjoy sports so much more when I can just watch games and not care who wins.

The past two years, Georgetown was the clearly superior team -- a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs each year, a Final Four team in one of them -- and went up to Syracuse and got smoked. It was depressing. It was demoralizing. It was a given.

Never has it felt more like a given than it does today. Since Georgetown beat the tangerine-colored pests in D.C. on Feb. 14, the Hoyas are 1-6, the only win coming against Rutgers. Since that day, Syracuse is 2-5, but their wins (Notre Dame and West Virginia) are more impressive. The Orange have had injuries (Rautins, Onauaku) to blame for many of their struggles, thought Jonny Flynn's crappy shooting of late hasn't helped much either.

The reasons I'm not very hopeful of an upset here are (1) Georgetown's youth, and the good chance they struggle with the insane Carrier Dome atmosphere, (2) the fact that the Hoyas haven't run their offense smoothly or effectively for more than four minutes at a time since Jan. 14 and (3) Syracuse's need to win the game.

The last point may be the most important. At 18-7 overall, 6-6 in conference, Syracuse is in good shape to make the NCAAs -- as long as they don't fall apart completely in the final month. Of the six games left on their schedule, two are pushovers (at St. John's and home against Rutgers), three are tough (at Marquette and home against Villanova and Cincinnati) and one is this rivalry game today (noon, ESPN). If they win this game today, they're pretty much guaranteed at least 21 overall wins and no worse than a 9-9 Big East record. That, in this season, is a guaranteed ticket to the Dance.

Syracuse also right now holds a shaky grip on eighth place in the conference. (They're tied with West Virginia, but beat the Mountaineers head-to-head.) This is significant, remember, because the top eight get a bye to the second round of the Big East tournament next month while teams 9-through-16 have to show up and play Tuesday. Syracuse, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Providence and Seton Hall are all basically battling for the final three spots in that top eight right now.

The Hoyas are obviously in much worse shape. At 13-9 overall, 4-7 Big East, they need a 5-2 finish just to get to .500 entering the conference tournament. With Marquette, Louisville and a trip to Villanova still on the schedule after today, that would be a tough trick even if they were playing well. And they're really, really not.

But see, here's the problem. If the Hoyas win today, then you can start to hope. You can look and say, "Well, Marquette's not playing well now, and Louisville just got smoked by Notre Dame...maybe we can pick off one of those and..."

Trouble. This is how you set yourself up for disappointment.

So yeah, I'll watch today. And I'll hope. And I'll care. And I'll desperately want them to win, and if they do I'll consider it a Happy Valentine's Day. But man, I wish I could find a way to the freaking Syracuse game.

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