Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the upcoming night's best basketball action.
No. 9 Florida at No. 3 Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: My podcast co-host Dana O'Neil was talking about the Orange and her time in Syracuse on the show this week, and she made a great point: It's pretty easy, in the midst of the ongoing allegations against Bernie Fine and the resulting turmoil that has followed, to forget about the actual Syracuse basketball team. Understandably so, of course. There are things much more important than basketball. But it should be noted that this Cuse team is beginning to look a lot like a juggernaut. We just haven't taken the time to notice.
Of course, that has to do with the Fine situation and with Jim Boeheim's response to it, which put his position with the school in at least temporary jeopardy. But it also has to do with the fact that Syracuse really hasn't played much of a schedule to date. Other than non-blowout wins over Virginia Tech and Stanford in the NIT Season Tip-Off last week, all of this team's 7-0 record came in cupcake blowouts. Even those two wins -- in the Garden with a pro-Syracuse crowd -- are hardly the most impressive. But when you consider SU's tempo-free statistics, and the all-important reminder that it's still very early, and you consider where Syracuse ranks in adjusted efficiency, this team might be as good as any in the country.
Boeheim's team (subscription required) is the No. 4-ranked offense in adjusted efficiency (scoring 1.168 points per possession) and No. 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency (allowing .88 points per trip to opponents). This Orange thrive on athleticism at both ends of the floor. They're No. 1 in the nation in opponents turnover rate, and they're No. 2 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. Forcing a ton of turnovers, grabbing your own rebounds 45 percent of the time -- that's a lot of extra possessions on offense. Consider also that Syracuse has the third-lowest block rate in the country on offense, and the third-highest on defense (and steals the ball more frequently than any defense in the country), and well, that's what happens when you recruit a team as deep and athletic as this.
Syracuse is like Ricky Bobby's sons Walker and Texas Ranger in "Talladega Nights": They'll come at you like a spider monkey.
Florida, Friday night's Big East/SEC Challenge opponent, is no slouch itself. Actually, statistically this is the best offensive team in the country to date, ranked No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency (subscription required). The Gators get that number through overall solidity: Their guards shoot the ball and attack the basket well. They don't turn it over often. Patric Young is an offensive rebounding force, and Bradley Beal has been excellent in an all-around way -- he does a little bit of everything (including rebounding from the guard spot) well. Offensively, you might like the Gators to challenge that 2-3 Cuse zone; if any team can space the floor with four guards and smoke Syracuse out, it's Florida, right? Right.
Unfortunately, the Gators haven't shown the same proficiency on the defensive end, where they're ranked No. 56 in adjusted efficiency thus far this season. Florida has been allowing opponents to get to the free throw line far too often -- on 40.7 percent of opponents' possessions, to be exact -- and though Syracuse is strangely one of the most foul line-averse teams in the country, you can imagine its come-from-all-angles interior attack picking up more than a few free trips to the charity stripe. But if Florida can limit the fouls and keep the Cuse off the glass (good luck), it might just have a shot.
In all likelihood, though, Syracuse's performance in this game will briefly outshine the Fine mess, and everyone will be forced to briefly look up and remind themselves that they're still playing college hoops on campus. And that this season’s Cuse team is starting to look really good.
No. 19 Vanderbilt, No 6 Louisville, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: On one hand, it seems unfair to appraise this Vanderbilt team too definitively until injured (and suspended) forward Festus Ezeli is able to return later this month. On the other hand, it seems fair to note that Vanderbilt has genuinely struggled thus far in 2011-12, and that only some of those struggles can be attributed to the loss of their big man. It seems this team still has most of its major flaws from 2010-11 lingering. The Commodores don't defend particularly well, mostly because they don't force turnovers. That was the case last season, and it's the case this season, though in this instance you can add "don't challenge shots," which has exacerbated the problem. Guards Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins, for all of their various strengths, aren't particularly good on-ball perimeter defenders, and opposing offenses can typically get into their stuff without worrying about much pressure from Kevin Stallings' team.
The only good news here, at least for Vandy, is that they match up with Louisville in a strength-versus-strength sort of way. The Cards haven't shot the ball particularly well and have turned it over on 21.8 percent of their possessions this season, so Vanderbilt's poor perimeter defense might not be as glaring Friday night. The bad news? Louisville happens to be a very good defensive team, one that challenges shots from everywhere and pressures opponents into frequent turnovers. Vandy -- especially with Ezeli gone -- is a team that must shoot well to win. UL opponents are averaging the third-worst effective field goal percentage in the country.
Perhaps Stallings can come up with something slightly new in Friday's game plan, or Vanderbilt can get hot at the right time. Either way, it would be nice to see the Commodores -- who received all that preseason top-10 buzz this summer -- do something to show that, Ezeli or not, they're not as flawed as they seem thus far.
Everywhere else: What may be a season-long attempt by Cincinnati to recover from two bad home nonconference losses (to Presbyterian and Marshall) continues Friday, when the Bearcats travel to Georgia to take on Mark Fox's rebuilding team. ... Auburn (4-0) and Seton Hall (5-1) have somewhat complementary records, but neither team (save for Seton Hall's well-played loss to Northwestern) has played or beaten anyone of note. We'll gain at least a little knowledge about both teams in the Prudential Center Friday. ... And be sure to keep an eye on this Washington-Nevada game. The Huskies would seem to have a perfect opportunity to become one of the Pac-12's marquee teams this season. UCLA is in crisis, Arizona is young and learning, Stanford is unproven and Cal -- the current favorite -- is far from unbeatable. But the young Huskies are still figuring things out themselves, and they'll have to be wary of taking a loss in a tough environment on the road in Reno on Friday night.