Men’s Basketball: Injuries slow Orange quest for NCAA berth
Fran Tolan | Friday, February 22, 2008
Notre Dame has a chance to damage – if not burst – the bubble of NCAA hopeful and Big East rival Syracuse when the Orange visit Notre Dame Sunday.
Syracuse defeated No. 8 Georgetown last Saturday but fell to No. 18 Louisville
Monday. The team is in dire need of another resume-building win before Selection Sunday.
The Orange are in the midst of a month-long stretch in which seven of their eight opponents are or have previously been ranked this season.
Syracuse (17-10 overall, 7-7 Big East) has fought hard to remain in the thick of the Big East race. The squad lost junior guard Eric Devendorf to a
season-ending knee injury in a 125-75 victory over East Tennessee State on Dec.
Devendorf averaged 17 points per game in 10 games this season but has been confined to the bench for the entirety of Big East play.
Notre Dame point guard Tory Jackson of Saginaw, Mich. played on an AAU squad with
Devendorf, who is from neighboring Bay City. Jackson said he has rarely watched Syracuse play since his former teammate was sidelined.
“I really haven’t seen that much of them,” Jackson said. “After my friend got
hurt, I really haven’t watched them too much.”
Jackson said Devendorf also has difficulty watching the Orange play as they attempt to make a late-season run.
“I talk to him a lot and it hurts,” Jackson said. “It kinda gets under his skin because he sees he can’t really help them out.”
Orange freshmen Donte Green and Jonny Flynn have shouldered much of the load to
keep Syracuse competitive in Devendorf’s absence. Green averages 17.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game while Flynn drops 15.2 points per contest.
“They’ve been hurt with a couple injuries but they’re getting more experienced as the season goes on,” Irish junior forward Zach Hillesland said. “They’ve got a lot of confident players and certainly a great coach over there.”
Syracuse Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim is 767-271 in 31-plus years with the program but this year he has had his work cut out for him. Losses to
Massachusetts, Cincinnati and South Florida have hurt Syracuse’s RPI, which
currently stands at No. 46.
Along with the contest at Notre Dame, Syracuse has remaining games against Pittsburgh, Seton Hall and Marquette to impress the NCAA Tournament committee.
But Notre Dame captain Rob Kurz said the Irish are just as hungry as the Orange for strong conference wins.
“It’s obviously gonna be a critical game for them but at this point in the season, it’s a crucial game for everybody,” Kurz said.
The top four Big East teams are awarded byes in the first round of the conference tournament and the Irish (19-5 overall, 10-3 Big East) now sit in fourth place.
On a national scale, Notre Dame has the No. 21 RPI, which would leave them in line for an NCAA Tournament seed between five and seven if the postseason were to begin today.
“We’re fighting for our lives to get an NCAA tournament bid and obviously to get a first-round bye in the Big East tournament,” Kurz said. “So, I mean, to say that they have more to play for than us … depends on how you look at it because we feel like we have just as much, if not more, to play for.”
Kurz said the Irish will focus on shutting down Syracuse’s top scorers, who he feels can catch fire at any time.
“The main thing for us: They obviously shoot a lot of threes and they have some young athletic guys,” Kurz said. “The key for us is gonna be how well we defend them.”
Hillesland said the Irish know what this game means for Syracuse and will try to
match the intensity of the visiting Orange.
“I’m sure they relish the opportunity to get another resume-building win, to
come in here and add to the win they got against Georgetown,” he said. “We’re expecting a very focused team to come in here and certainly we’ll be focused as well.”