College Basketball Handicapping: Syracuse-Florida Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 12/9/2009
I like to say that sports handicapping is mathematics, not magic. But one formula that even I haven't fully been able to grasp and predict is addition by subtraction. And this year the Syracuse Orange and Florida Gators are perfect examples of how this equation can mean big bucks for their backers.
No. 7 Syracuse (8-0) will take on No. 17 Florida (8-0) at 9 p.m. Thursday as part of the Big East/SEC Invitational. No spread has been posted on this game as I write this. However, I project that it will be somewhere around Florida -2.5. That said, it would not completely surprise me if the Orange are posted as an equally small road favorite since they are ranked higher and because they are more of a "name" basketball power from the better conference. But for now I expect the Gators to be small favorites and the total to be somewhere in the high 140s or low 150s.
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That is what I expect the numbers to be. But after what I've seen from these clubs through the first several weeks of the season nothing would shock me.
The Orange and the Gators have definitely been the two biggest surprises in this young college basketball season. Both teams lost an excessive amount of pro talent and neither was expected to compete for their respective league crowns. Yet in less than a month both schools have managed wins over Top 5 teams, stormed into the Top 20, and secured their positions as conference sleepers.
In order to get an idea of what each team saw walk out the door we just have to look at last November's 86-82 Syracuse win over the Gators in Kansas City. The Orange lost 50 of their 86 points as Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf, Paul Harris and Kris Ongenaet have all gone their separate ways. Florida is sans Nick Calathes, the SEC Player of the Year, and the do-it-all point guard that was responsible for 19 points and seven assists in last year's meeting.
Both teams have not only moved on without their former stars but they appear to be flourishing.
Syracuse surged into the Top 10 by virtue of a dominating performance in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic last month in Madison Square Garden. They hammered Cal and North Carolina - both of which were in the Top 15 at the time - by an average of 19 points. Florida raised eyebrows by topping Michigan State and host Rutgers over Thanksgiving in Atlantic City.
Not only are the Gators and Orange both surprise teams, both playing well despite significant talent losses, and both owners of victories over Top 5 teams, but they also have two other things in common: they are both mammoth along the front line and they both are smothering people with defense.
Syracuse boasts the best frontcourt in the Big East. Small forward Wesley Johnson has a legion of new fans, including NBA scouts, and is pumping in 17 points per game with an array of offensive skills. Bruising forward/centers Rick Jackson (6-9, 240 pounds) and Arinze Onuaku (6-9, 260 pounds) have combined to make an amazing 74 of 109 shots this season (67.9 percent) while dominating the paint.
Those three players have helped the Orange become the most efficient offense in the nation (No. 2 in scoring at 90.4 points per game, No. 1 in field goal percentage at 55.8) as well as one of the top defensive clubs in the country (No. 8 in field goal defense at 35.7 percent and No. 61 in points per game against at 61.6). They are the foundation of the SU zone, which is as active and as aggressive as it has been this decade.
Florida also boasts a beastly front line. Forwards Vernon Macklin (6-10), Dan Werner (6-8), Alex Tyus (6-8) and Chandler Parsons (6-9) are all long, athletic, 92-feet players that have really been at the forefront of the Gators revival. They, too, have made Florida one of the best defensive groups in the country as the Gators are No. 22 in points per game (57.9) and No. 2 in three-point defense (21.4).
Because both teams have dominating front lines this game will likely come down to whose guards perform better. And since both teams are relying on generally inexperienced, unproven players that's part of what makes this contest so interesting.
Although there have been a lot more hyped up freshmen in the nation, I don't know if any other first-year guard has had as big of an impact on his team than Florida's Kenny Boynton. Boynton is averaging a team-high 13.9 points per game on a very balanced Gators offense and both his confidence and fearlessness seem to have jump-started this team.
Sophomore Erving Walker, a 5-8 pistol straight out of Brooklyn, joins him. And in the mold of other NYC point men, Walker is tough as nails and a fiery competitor. Walker is the No. 2 scorer on this team and is one of four players that average between 11.1 and 13.9 points per game, and one of six Gators notching 8.0 or more points per outing on what is an exceedingly well-balanced scoring attack.
Yet again, the Orange's situation mimics that of Thursday's opponent. Freshman Brandon Triche has been a difference maker while posting 11.5 points per game and flashy Philadelphia native Scoop Jardine has given the Orange exactly the spark that it needed.
One edge that the Orange have is that Johnson gives them a legitimate go-to player in the clutch and that shooting guard Andy Rautins has the most big game experience of any perimeter player on either team.
Since these teams are, in a lot of ways, mirror images of each other this game is incredibly difficult to handicap. Further muddling the issue is the fact that, outside of some marquee contests against banged up and/or overrated teams, both schools have really padded their record playing against cream puffs. Syracuse's nonconference schedule is currently rated No. 292 and four of their eight wins have come against opponents ranked No. 280 to No. 292. Florida's nonconference schedule is rated No. 320, with three of their wins coming against teams ranked No. 300 or lower (out of 342).
Florida clearly has an edge because this game is being played so close to home. Not only is that a boon for them, but this is also SU's first contest in a truly hostile environment. This is also a revenge spot for the Gators for that overtime loss last year in Missouri and that can be a powerful motivator.
Since Florida is one of the few teams that has the size to matchup with Syracuse there is going to be a lot of pressure on Syracuse's guards to make shots from the perimeter. They have been up to the task so far, hitting an exceptional 42.3 percent of their three-point attempts. But now they are going to be tested by that outstanding Gators perimeter defense and a familiar site - the 2-3 zone.
Conversely, if Florida has a weakness it is their pathetic outside shooting. They are ranked just No. 233 in outside shooting at just 31.7 percent. And you can believe that the Syracuse zone will likely sag off the Gators shooters and make them win from the outside.
Also, Florida is a team that likes to press for the full 40 minutes. The Orange have not seen that type of pressure at all this year. And while the Orange do like to run I wouldn't completely trust them not to turn the ball over and make poor decisions against the press. In fact, how the Orange handle that is going to be one of the keys to this contest.
Another consideration is that if this is as close of a game as I believe that it will be, Syracuse's struggles from the free throw line could come back to bite them. All of the SU guards are more than capable at the charity stripe. But the Syracuse bigs are abysmal, and the team shoots just 63.5 percent on its freebies for the year.
This should be one of the best games of the month and a game that will likely be at the heart of one team's resume once March rolls around. I'm not certain if this contest offers much betting value (although someone may feel that they have a much better read on this game than I) but it should be not only very entertaining but also very telling as we try to handicap these two surprise teams moving forward.
Robert Ferringo is a professional handicapper and he has gained around +180 Units and $15,000 for his $100 bettors since mid-February in college basketball. You can purchase his college basketball picks here.
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