There will be plenty on the line when the ball tips at Madison Square Garden tonight a little after 9PM. Louisville still harbors hope of getting a 1 seed in the Big Dance, partly due to the surprising falls Oklahoma, Connecticut and Pittsburgh took in their conference tournaments this week. Meanwhile, SU will look to solidify a four seed and possibly snag a three by taking the auto-bid from the Big East conference.
And one can't overstate the significance of the difference between a three and a four seed in this year's tournament. With at least two (in all likelihood) and possibly three teams from the Big East conference sitting on the 1 line, SU could not be placed in a bracket as a 4 seed with another Big East team as a 1 seed, due to NCAA tournament seeding rules. If SU closes on the four line, it's a distinct possibility the ‘Cuse could end up with a potential matchup against the nation's anointed champ in the preseason, North Carolina. The Tar Heels are a team that has as much talent on the floor as anyone in America and would be a tough matchup for SU, even though Coach Jim Boeheim's squad has proved it can play with anyone in the nation this week. If SU ended up with a 3 seed, it could find itself in a different bracket with the tougher matchups coming a round or two later in March Madness. Many Orange fans have been clamoring for matchups with Michigan State or Memphis in the tournament because those two teams are perceived as vastly overrated compared to where they'll likely be seeded on Selection Sunday. While this is true, SU is going to have to go through a couple of gut-check games that test the heart and determination of this team once more, if it hopes to make a trip to Ford Field in early April.
Enough talk about the future. Let's get back to tonight's contest. The two teams do have a few similarities despite what I previously said. First, they're going to be tough outs in the Big Dance because of the matchup problems they provide and other facets of the game they're able to bring to the table night in and night out. Secondly, both teams are playing their best ball now in March. Rick Pitino's squad is one of the few in the country that can truly say it's hotter than SU. The Cardinals enter this game having won their last nine games, following a 33-point road setback in the Joyce Center to Notre Dame, after which Coach Pitino took the team's snazzy practice uniforms away and made his team earn them back by getting a road win.
Now both Louisville and Syracuse are on a neutral floor and just one game away from entering the fray that is March Madness as one of the nation's hottest teams. Time to get our hands dirty and go behind the numbers to see how each team can win tonight's championship bout.
Six Keys To The Game / Pressing Questions:
- Louisville outscores opponents 74-62 on average, while SU's margin is 82-72. While this might lead one to believe the ‘Ville is going to try to take the air out of the ball tonight, the Cards will likely be employing a press for much of the night. And there's good reason to do so, with an opponent that's played 155 minutes of basketball in the last three days. Meanwhile, Louisville has played just 80 over the past two days. To top that off, Louisville rolls eight deep easily, featuring guards Edgar Sosa, Jerry Smith and Andre McGee (all who are high motor guys that play a big role in the press). In fact, each of its first eight players on this Louisville team average more than four points and 1.4 rebounds per game. Talk about balance!
- So it might behoove SU to slow the game down and utilize all of the shot clock it can, especially against Louisville's pressure defense. However, Louisville (which gives up 61.5 ppg) is 17-1 when holding opponents to 61 points or fewer and a bit more modest 10-4 when opponents score 62 or more on it. SU will need to run a precision offense and not be afraid to get up and down in the transition game. The Orange will get at least a four day break after this one before the NCAAs begin.
- In terms of the fatigue factor, expect it to kick in much more tonight for SU. While Johnny Flynn played all 45 minutes last night, it would be surprising for him to not get some sort of breather tonight. Thus, contributions from some of the fresher players (Rick Jackson, Kristof Ongenaet and Kris Joseph) will likely be key, as they could allow Jim Boeheim to switch Eric Devendorf to the point and Andy Rautins to the 2 for some brief stretches of play. Also, expect something special from Paul Harris tonight, who's been in the doghouse as of late, but always seems to pull a ‘How'd he do that?' play out of his hip pocket every few games.
- Looking at some trends, SU remains unbeaten (16-0) when Arinze Onuaku gets a dozen or more points and just 10-8 when he doesn't. It's also 10-0 when Andy Rautins shoots 50 percent or better from the floor. Meanwhile, the ‘Cuse is 8-2 in games played on two days or less rest this season, while the Cardinals boast a 6-2 mark.
- It's hard to find a key common denominator that plagued Louisville in each of its five losses this season, but freshman big man Samardo Samuels has had limited production and/or minutes in nearly all of the five losses. He finished with less than 27 minutes in three of the losses and had four or more fouls in three. In the other games Louisville lost, Samuels was just a young pup establishing himself in the college basketball world early in his freshman season. If SU can corral the Jamaican, it would greatly increase its chances of winning. The ‘Cuse big men did a good job last time, limiting Samuels to 22 minutes and six points on six shots, while goading him into four personal fouls.
- Don't be misled by the score of the last game. If you remember back, SU found itself with some open looks at three to take the lead in the final few minutes and was unable to convert them. Expect a helluva game tonight with both teams laying it on the line. While this is SU's record-setting 14th appearance in the Big East final, Louisville is a relative newbie to the conference and this marks their first appearance in the spotlight game. With SU running on fumes though, Louisville should be able to exploit matchups and the 2-3 zone and win the title. However, it's dangerous to discount any team and if Louisville makes the same mistake West Virginia did last night, the Orange could wind up with the trophy.
Prediction: #5 Louisville 75, #20 Syracuse 68