Big East Tournament semifinals preview: Once more, with feeling

NEW YORK — If the Big East had brought in a room full of Hollywood writers, handed them a substantial check for their services and said “We need you to script this tournament so we get the maximum amount of drama and most enticing match-ups for Friday night,” the bracket they’d create would look pretty much identical to the one we actually get to watch unfold tonight in Madison Square Garden.

The Hoyas and the Orange, a rivalry as old as the Big East and the one that helped define the league in its early days. The Cardinals and the Irish, playing in the semifinals here for the third consecutive year and doing so in the same season they met in a five-overtime classic.

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After a day of subpar games on Wednesday, business picked up yesterday in the World’s Most Famous Arena. Georgetown held off a charge from Cincinnati before Syracuse did the same to Pittsburgh, sealing a bonus rematch in their decades-old feud. When the evening session rolled around, former President Bill Clinton showed up and Russ Smith had a night to remember, honoring the memory of his high school coach as Louisville ran Villanova off the floor. In the finale, Notre Dame rallied from an ugly deficit wearing some uglier uniforms and pulled the upset on Marquette, setting up tonight’s slate.

For any basketball junkie, tonight is heaven. Let’s take a closer look at the match-ups that will set the stage for Saturday night’s championship game.

(1) Georgetown vs. (5) Syracuse – 7:00pm

When you first start learning about zone defenses in youth basketball, the number one lesson is that to attack a 2-3 zone, you need to have a player at foul line. That person should have some height, otherwise they won’t be able to see through the inevitable forest of extended arms that will collapse around them. They also need to be a willing and able passer, because if you can’t get the ball to your open teammates, what does it matter if the defense is collapsing around you? Bonus points if you can also dribble a little to attack the seams and extra special bonus points if you can also consistently knock down the sixteen-foot jumper that will be available to you on occasion.

What this rambling is eventually getting to is that if you designed a player from scratch to attack the 2-3 zone, it would look a lot like Otto Porter Jr., a rangy, unselfish, 6’8” forward with touch. It’s no coincidence that the Hoyas went 2-0 against the Orange this year, because even the long arms of the Syracuse law could not slow the Big East Player of the Year. In the first match-up, Porter silenced a record Carrier Dome crowd, scoring 33 points, grabbing eight boards and pilfering five steals in a 57-46 win. The rematch was even more one-sided as Porter took on the roll of facilitator, dishing seven assists to support a balanced Hoya attack in a 61-39 rout. It is no wonder Jim Boeheim heartily endorsed Porter as the National Player of the Year.

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The Orange came limping into this tournament, losers of four of five, but they have seemed to regain a little bit of their mojo in tournament wins against Seton Hall and Pittsburgh. James Southerland has been on fire from deep, knocking down twelve threes over the last two days. In order to get some revenge on the Hoyas, Jim Boeheim is going to need Southerland to keep up the hot shooting and continue to get some scoring assistance from C.J. Fair, Brandon Triche and especially Michael Carter-Williams. The Cuse point guard has been up and down, registering fourteen assists to only one turnover on Wednesday versus the Pirates but struggling against the Panthers, turning it over six times against seven assists. Against a Hoya team that places slow and limits the possessions in a game, he’ll need to clean that up.

For Georgetown to advance, they just need to keep going with the formula’s that worked for most of 2013: On offense, Porter either facilitates or gets his own shot depending on how the defense is playing him, with John Thompson III’s eerily efficient system usually resulting with an attempt at the rim or three point look. On defense, just replicate as much of the game plan as you can that resulted in Syracuse’s season-low 39 points last Saturday.

It is very fitting that these two teams get to go at it one more time in the Garden. Their rivalry helped to define the conference in the 1980’s, as they matched up in the very first Big East Tournament final (an 87-81 Hoya win at the Providence Civic Center) and then battled in the championship game four more times after that. Yesterday’s afternoon session featuring these two squads included Derrick Coleman and Dikembe Mutombo sitting courtside, so it’s a safe bet the stars will be out tonight for one last conference grudge match.

(2) Louisville vs. (6) Notre Dame – 9:30pm

When you’ve only been in the same conference since the 2006-2007 season, you need to get creative if you want to make up time on building a rivalry. One easy, do-it-yourself option? Play overtimes, as many as you can and as often as possible.

Everyone knows about the five-overtime classic this year, but the Cardinals/Irish extra sessions have been going on for a while now. Last year they went to double OT in an upset Irish win in the KFC Yum! Center. In 2011, Notre Dame won an overtime home game, only to lose an overtime rematch in the Big East semifinals. In 2009 and 2010? Two Irish losses in Louisville, one in overtime and the other in double OT. If you ran out of fingers to count on, that’s six games that were tied at the end of regulation and twelve total bonus periods. This will also be the third consecutive year the teams have met on Friday night in the Garden. If familiarity breeds contempt, these two teams are probably getting tired of seeing each other.

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The match-up is a classic clash of styles. On one side you have the Cardinals, employing Coach Rick Pitino’s press to perfection, unleashing a deep bench on their way to earning the top defensive efficiency in the country. On the other side, you have the Irish, occasional proprietor of the burn offense, a strategy where they attempt to will basketball back to the pre-shot clock era. When shots are falling for the Irish and they are keeping their cool against the press, you end up with overtime and a close game that Mike Brey’s flowing offense can prevail in. When Notre Dame is cold from three or careless with the basketball? Things get bloody, like in last Saturday’s blowout loss or last year’s semifinal, where the Cardinals ran away with it from the jump.

If Notre Dame wants to spring their second consecutive upset after downing third-seeded Marquette last night, they’re going to need a few things to happen. First, they’ll need to contain Russ Smith and Peyton Siva to a respectable degree. This is not just on the guards, but also on the Irish’s quartet of big men, who will need to help out in the paint so that the perimeter defenders can try to chase the Cardinals from the three-point line without fear of ceding the paint. And heaven help the Irish if they don’t clean up the defensive boards, or it might be a festival of dunking from Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan and company.

Secondly, they’re going to need Pat Connaughton to stay on fire from behind the arc. The Irish sophomore has already collected a dozen threes over the last two nights, although I imagine Pitino’s crew will do a better job of keeping track of him on the perimeter than Marquette. It would also help the Irish if they could get some quality minutes from Cameron Biedscheid, a highly touted freshman who appears to have hit the rookie wall. Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins have combined to play 152 of 160 possible minutes so far in this tournament, and against a Louisville team that’s deeper, fresher and hungry for turnovers, it wouldn’t hurt to steal them some rest.

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Louisville is in a similar position to Georgetown: They walloped their semifinal opponent less than a week ago, and while they don’t have home court here, the game plan should still be effective. A win here and the Cardinals are one step closer to defending last year’s tournament title, a feat accomplished only three times in history (Georgetown in the 80’s, UConn in the 90’s, Syracuse in the 2000’s).

And if all of that isn’t enough, don’t forget this: Tonight will be Zubaz on Zubaz action, as both teams have been sporting the adidas alternate uniforms that inspired a nation to adjust the brightness settings on their television. There’s also the fun fact that Rick Pitino’s son Mike is a graduate of Notre Dame, meaning that tonight is also a bit of a family feud.

Thankfully for fans of bonus basketball, this rivalry will resume in 2014-15 when Louisville joins the Irish in the ACC. While it seems like a lot of the signs are pointing to a Cardinals rout, consider the overtime history and make sure – just in case - you don’t have an early breakfast planned for tomorrow morning.

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