While both Syracuse and Louisville are locked into their respective slots for next week's Big East conference tournament in New York City, both teams have much to play for at the Carrier Dome on Saturday.
The second-ranked Orange (29-1, 16-1) will be the No. 1 seed after winning the Big East outright with their 71-69 victory at Connecticut last Saturday. Syracuse squandered a 17-point second-half lead, but Fab Melo's follow slam with 31 seconds left provided the winning points and more importantly, brought the Orange a huge step closer to securing a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
"This was a big character win, because we didn't have the momentum for the last 5 minutes and everything was going right for them,'' guard C.J. Fair said. "For us to come up with a win like this is big.''
Syracuse has won nine straight since its 67-58 defeat at Notre Dame on Jan. 21, but needed to score the final six points of the game to beat Louisville (22-8, 10-7) 52-51 at the KFC Yum! Center on Feb. 13. Fair had 13 points off the bench as the Orange overcame 34.4 percent shooting by limiting the 19th-ranked Cardinals to 34.7 percent from the floor and forcing 16 turnovers.
"You can either give the defenses credit or say it was a bad offensive game,'' Boeheim said after that victory. "We're going to look on the bright side and say it was a real defensive struggle tonight.''
The Orange are seeking the fifth 30-win season in school history but their first in the regular season. They also are trying to become just the second Big East team since 1981 to finish conference play with only one loss, joining the 1984-85 St. John's squad that eventually reached the Final Four.
Louisville will be the No. 7 seed at Madison Square Garden but is in need of a bounce-back after a surprising 58-51 home loss to South Florida on Wednesday. Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith each scored 14 points and shot a combined 10 for 20, but the rest of their Cardinals teammates shot a combined 8 for 33 as Louisville lost for the third time in five games.
Coach Rick Pitino noted that the slower pace Louisville has played in recent games has knocked his team off rhythm. The Cardinals have been held to 57 points or fewer in four of their last five games, shooting 27.7 percent from 3-point range and 37.8 percent overall in that span.
"In these slow down games, every possession is fundamentals," he noted after Wednesday's loss, fully aware another such game awaits at Syracuse with the Orange's 2-3 zone defense. "They had guys who made shots and we had guys, other than Chris Smith, who didn't make shots."
"It's always been that way if you have shooters on the perimeter. They knock down the shots. If you don't have shooters on the perimeter, it's going to be difficult to make shots."
Kuric went 1 for 6 from beyond the arc in last month's loss to Syracuse after totaling 45 points and going 9 for 13 from 3-point range in his previous two games against the Orange - both Louisville victories. Despite the disappointment of losing on senior night at home, Smith is ready to make Syracuse feel that same pain.
"I thought about it a lot before this game that I wanted to steal their senior night, but I also wanted to win ours,'' Smith said. "Now, to make up for this, we have to go up there and beat them.''