Syracuse passed its first test during a three-game road trip against one of the Big East’s lower-tier teams, but its final two contests appear to be far more difficult.
Beating the Orange, however, has been too much of a challenge for West Virginia in recent years.
Fifth-ranked Syracuse has won 10 of its last 11 games against the No. 10 Mountaineers, and it’ll look to continue that dominance and knock off its fourth Top 15 opponent Saturday afternoon in Morgantown.
The Orange (16-1, 3-1) started 13-0 with neutral site wins over No. 13 California, No. 6 North Carolina and No. 10 Florida, and offensive efficiency has been their key all season. Syracuse leads the nation in shooting percentage (53.2), is second in assists per game (20.8) and third in points (85.2).
Coach Jim Boeheim’s team was held to season lows of 42.4 percent shooting and 12 assists in an 82-72 home loss to Pittsburgh on Jan. 2, but thanks to Andy Rautins it’s 5-0 away from home with West Virginia up next and a trip to Notre Dame looming Monday.
The senior guard had a season-high 23 points, nine assists, eight rebounds and five steals in an 81-65 win at Rutgers on Wednesday, though he also had five of the Orange’s 18 turnovers.
“We have to clean that up before we go to Morgantown,” said Rautins, who picked up the slack after leading scorer Wesley Johnson (17.0 points per game) was held to 11. “Even though we won, we’re still not happy with the way we are playing. We’re not where we need to be yet, which is a good thing.”
Facing the Mountaineers (13-2, 4-1) hasn’t been too intimidating for Syracuse in the past decade. The Orange have won 10 of 11 meetings, but they’ve only visited Morgantown once since 2004 - and that resulted in an 81-61 loss on Jan. 13, 2008.
Syracuse won both meetings last season, including a 74-69 overtime victory in the semifinals of the Big East tournament - one night after it outlasted Connecticut in six overtimes.
West Virginia has only been ranked heading into one of those Orange wins, however, and Syracuse doesn’t have much of a glowing recent history on the road against top-flight competition. The Orange have lost their last six road games to top-10 opponents by an average of 12.8 points.
The Mountaineers have alternated wins and losses in their past five games, including a 77-62 defeat at No. 4 Purdue on Jan. 1 and a 70-68 loss at Notre Dame last Saturday.
West Virginia bounced back from the loss to the Irish on Wednesday at South Florida, but it had to overcome an early deficit. The Bulls led 23-12 midway through the first half, but the Mountaineers outscored them 57-27 the rest of the way en route to a 69-50 win.
“We did in the second half what we were supposed to do the whole game,” coach Bob Huggins said.
Devin Ebanks had 17 points and 11 rebounds against the Bulls after not scoring at Notre Dame, but West Virginia likely needs Da’Sean Butler to be better to knock off the Orange. Butler, the Mountaineers’ leading scorer at 15.9 points per game, has shot 30.3 percent in his last two contests.
“We’ve got to get him going,” Huggins said of Butler, who averaged 22.0 points in the team’s two losses to Syracuse last season. “And it’s not that he’s not playing hard and it’s not that he’s not trying.”
West Virginia is 11-0 when it holds its opponent under 50 percent shooting.