NEW YORK – After a Friday night that gave us one of the more memorable games in the conference’s storied history, it’s fitting that the Big East title game is coming down to two storied programs who have already gone down to the wire twice this season.
Syracuse and Louisville will play the rubber match of their impromptu three-game season series tonight in a match-up that doubles as the curtain call for the current Big East. Sure, Georgetown and Butler might be playing a well-fought game in this same spot next year, but no one is pretending it’s going to be close to the same thing following this summer’s fracture. (I would imagine Big East officials get little pleasure from the fact that both of these teams will be in the ACC by the 2014-2015 season.)
If the third game between Rick Pitino (who also coached in this tournament with Providence in the 80's) and Jim Boeheim (Syracuse coach in all thirty-four editions of the bracket) is anything like their first two meetings this season, we’re in for a treat. Back in January, Louisville had risen to number one in the national polls, and a packed KFC Yum! Center crowd was ready for the sixth-ranked Orange. After a back and forth second half that saw the visitors trailing by as many as eight, a pair of Michael Carter-William steals in the final minute helped Syracuse pull the upset, downing their hosts 70-68.
Earlier this month, Louisville returned the favor in the Carrier Dome. A ragged game was tied 48-48 going into the final minute before Cardinals forward Luke Hancock freed himself for a go-ahead three-pointer. Kevin Ware and Russ Smith hit seven-of-eight free throws down the stretch to seal the deal and the Orange fell 58-53.
This is the second time the two programs have met in the Big East Tournament championship game, the first coming in 2009, where a weary Syracuse team coming off seven overtimes in two nights fell to top-seeded Louisville. Orange point guard Jonny Flynn was named tournament MVP in a losing effort, as his squad ran out off of gas in the second half as the Cardinals sprinted away with a 76-66 win.
If both teams continue their hot-shooting ways, tonight’s game should look more like the first, as Smith, Hancock and James Southerland (already with sixteen threes this postseason) have all been deadly from behind the arc this week. One factor that might mitigate any offensive outbursts is the great defense from both teams, as Syracuse’s roving forest of a 2-3 zone and Louisville’s full court man-to-man pressure were in top form last night, repeatedly coming up with key stops against very talented Georgetown and Notre Dame offenses.
Both teams have such long, versatile, talented front courts that my guess is this game will come down to how well point guards Peyton Siva and Carter-Williams play. Siva, and his back court running mate Smith, have been on fire since arriving in New York, dogging opposing guards, exploding in fast breaks and hitting a variety of shots from all over the floor. Carter-Williams has struggled with turnovers and hasn't shot the ball particularly well, but he's made big plays in all three tournament games for the Orange. If he plays like he did in Louisville (scoring or assisting on the final 13 Syracuse points), it would go a long way towards helping Jim Boeheim get his sixth Big East tournament title.
Since both teams have already won on the other’s court I doubt the crowd will mean much, but expect a pretty significant Syracuse advantage in the World’s Most Famous Arena. Both the Hoya and Cardinal faithful got loud at times last night, but they were no match for the ranks of Orange supporters, brightly splotched across the Garden like it was Halloween and turning up the volume as necessary.
With Syracuse struggling and Louisville streaking, these two teams were on different paths coming into this tournament, but now they’re both playing some of their best basketball of the season as we dive deeper into March. You couldn’t ask for two better coaches or two better teams for the Big East’s grand finale. Enjoy, everyone.
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