The DePaul Blue Demons welcome the Syracuse Orange to the friendly confines of Allstate Arena on Saturday for a game that features two teams going in completely opposite directions. The Blue Demons are struggling at the bottom of the conference while the Orange are a national title contender. Still, strange things do happen. I did a Q&A with Sean Keeley over at Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician about the upcoming game.
1) CCB: Syracuse wasn't supposed to be this good... Were they? Most national pundits had them out of the Top 25 when the season started. What did they miss?
TN: Not at all. After Jonny Flynn left, the consensus was that Syracuse would be a fringe Top 25 team and this would basically be an in-between year while we wait for next season's great recruiting class.
What did they miss? Like most of us, they undervalued Wes Johnson (left). Even with his brief time at Iowa State, Johnson was still a pretty unknown quantity before the year. Boeheim and anyone close to the team talked up Wes Johnson something special during the summer but its one thing to hear it and another to see it in action.
I also don't think folks realized that players such as Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson would improve so quickly. They've really stepped it up and formed a strong core of returning players for next season when they'll be the leaders. 2) CCB: The 2-3 zone is a maniacal weapon in the hands of someone like Jim Boeheim. What has he done to make the defense so good this season?
TN: Quite simply he's got the right players for the system. No superstars (Wes doesn't play like one), no defense liabilities (like Paul Harris) and two really big bodies underneath (Arinze Onuaku (left) and Rick Jackson). It's about as balanced a defensive unit as we've ever seen at SU.
Plus, look at all the experience. Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku are in their fifth seasons with the team. Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson each have three years under their belt and Wes practiced in it last year while he red-shirted.
3) CCB: Wesley Johnson is getting all the Player of the Year press, but I look at Pomeroy and Scoop Jardine is using even more possessions. Who is the man for Syracuse?
TN: Boeheim has said Wes is the most unselfish superstar he's ever coached. I think the stat is that Johnson only shoots around 11 times a game on average. Jimmy doesn't seem too concerned with Wes taking more shots because, well, the system seems to be working just fine. Especially because Wes brings to many other intangibles with him. He's grabbing nine boards a game as well and making big steals and blocks consistently.
The team has a tendancy to drift towards the hot hand rather than focus on one player on any given night. We've seen Scoop have big games and then his point-guard-mate Brandon Triche will light it up the next night. The only constant? Wes Johnson. It's downright eerie how consistent he is. 17-20 points, 7-10 rebounds...it's almost automatic.
So while he might not lead the team in scoring many night, if the game is on the line and we need one shot to win, chances are Wes is the guy with the ball in his hands.
4) CCB: Does Syracuse have a weakness? How can DePaul pull a monumental upset on Saturday?
TN: They've got a few that rear their ugly head every other game or so. Despite the fact that they've got their best frontcourt in years, they get out-rebounded fairly consistently. And, as we saw in the Pitt game, they still have the ability to get pushed around. Putting some big bodies down there to shake up Onuaku and Jackson can really have a strong effect on the offensive and defensive flow for SU.
Speaking of Onukau and Jackson, they are terrible free throw shooters. Onuaku is actually one of the worst all-time for regular players. It hasn't bitten us in the tush yet. But there's always that looming.
Andy Rautins (right) has been streaky all season. He's the team's emotional leader but he's had some questionable games and made some really bad decisions. The Orange have been turnover-prone in general and when Andy's not feeling it, he's really not feeling it.
5) CCB: Syracuse is a founding member of the Big East. How do fans of the Orange feel about newcomers like DePaul and South Florida that have struggled since joining?
TN: Honestly, I think a lot of Big East traditionalists have a hard time justifying it. Not so much South Florida because they bring football to the table. But I feel like DePaul is on thin ice with the Big East. I don't get the sense that the conference feels like it needs them so, like Temple, if they don't improve in a hurry they might find themselves on the outside looking in. Especially since the basketball conference is so bloated and we've already got plenty of middling programs like Rutgers and St. John's.
Winning cures all ills so if the Blue Demons want to make everyone stop worrying about it, you gotta rebuild. Of course, easier said than done. Now, if the conference ever does make a move to bring on a program like Memphis, which has been rumored, DePaul should probably get very concerned. Cause we cannot expand the conference any further, its already too big..someone would have to go.
A big thanks to Sean. You can check out my answers to his questions here.