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Preview: No. 4 Louisville meets No. 19 Syracuse for Big East championship

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Louisville and Syracuse meet Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The winner is the final Big East champion as we’ve come to know it and will earn an automatic bid. The loser will follow along into the NCAA tournament with an at-large. But both, perhaps more importantly in the historical context of things, will eventually end up in the ACC. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was less-than-optimistic Friday night on the topic of realignment.

“This has got nothing to do with basketball. This is about football,” he said. “It’s where everything is going. Just wait a few more years. Everybody will be gone.”

So let’s try not to think of this Big East championship as an ACC preview, as tough as that may be, because we’ve got a Big East champion to crown. Check out the preview below:

Coaches

Both Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim have been woven into the fabric of the Big East tournament and both have taken time to lament the fall of the conference that helped define their two careers. Win or lose, the postgame press conferences will likely be a dominated by comments about the league itself, the venue in Manhattan, and the tradition of this conference. Louisville guard Peyton Siva cited Pitino’s love of Madison Square Garden as one of the reasons he enjoys bringing his team to play there. Saturday there will be a Big East champion, but it will also be the end of an era.

Advantage: Draw

Guards

Much of what will dictate Louisville’s success in March is how well the backcourt combo of Siva and Russ Smith plays. If Friday night’s semifinal against Syracuse is any indication, the Cardinals could make a run. Siva is coming alive in the same way he did last season at this time, as an efficient and productive guard capable of leading a team to the Final Four. Smith chipped in as well with 20 points.

Michael Carter-Williams struggled against the mix of defenses Georgetown rolled out Friday night in the semifinal, shooting 1-of-7 from the floor and turning the ball over six times. Brandon Triche was an efficient 4-of-7 from the field for 13 points, but needs to pick up his aggressiveness and maintain his confidence for the Orange.

Advantage: Louisville

Forwards

James Southerland is having a historic run in this year’s Big East tournament from behind the three-point line. He has made 16 shots from long range so far, tying the conference tournament record held by former Syracuse guard and current Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara. Southerland’s ability to stretch the floor is the most important part of his game, as it allows Carter-Williams and Triche to have more space, as well as more room for fellow forward C.J. Fair. Fair did not play well Friday, going 3-of-16 from the floor, but Boeheim still spoke glowingly about him in the postgame press conference.

Louisville’s Luke Hancock takes on the same role for the Cardinals as Southerland has for Syracuse. He stretches the floor and hits big shots when they need it, including 3-of-3 from three-point range Friday night in the win over Notre Dame. Chane Behanan hasn’t scored in double figures since Feb. 27 and more production from him could never hurt.

Advantage: Syracuse

Centers

Gorgui Dieng has developed and refined his game noticeably from last season to this season. Previously making his impression solely on the defensive end, Dieng is now more versatile offensively and is an option as a facilitator for other scorers on the floor. And, oh yeah, he can still block shots.

Baye Keita played 41 minutes Friday night against Georgetown and did what Syracuse needed him to do. He also had one of his best offensive outputs in a while, tripling his season scoring average with 13 points and adding eight rebounds. Rakeem Christmas played just four minutes and Boeheim said after the game he was “sleeping” for much of Friday’s win.

Advantage: Louisville

Prediction

When Louisville’s guards are playing like this, they are tough to beat. Siva and Smith, with Hancock hitting shots from the outside and Dieng locking down the interior, don’t allow for the opponent to exploit too many weaknesses. As simple as it sounds, it will likely come down to the team that is consistently hitting shots. Syracuse did that in the first half against Georgetown Friday and built a nine-point lead. They didn’t do it in the second half and allowed the Hoyas to climb back into it.

Louisville will need to disrupt Carter-Williams with a mix of defensive rotations and force him to turn the ball over. Doing that not only works to make Southerland a non-factor, but will help the Cardinals get out in transition. Siva has not played well in either of his matchups this year with Syracuse, which turned out to be one win and one loss. They’ll need him tonight to win the Big East championship.

Final Score: Louisville 64, Syracuse 60

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

No. 22 Butler ruins No. 2 Villanova’s seniors’ perfect Pavilion record

Butler center Nate Fowler and Villanova forward Eric Paschall, right, vie for a rebound in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Villanova, Pa. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
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All Villanova players have known since they joined the program is winning at The Pavilion. Late into Wednesday’s game against No. 22 Butler, it looked like that would continue to be their only frame of reference for a group of seniors that were 45-0 in the building.

Then another ‘0’ turned that zero into a ‘1.’

The Bulldogs ripped off an 18-0 run in a 5-minute span to ultimately claim a 74-66 victory over second-ranked and defending national champion Villanova.

Villanova looked like it was going to cruise to another home win when Josh Hart’s 3-pointer with 10 minutes, 37 seconds remaining put the Wildcats up 49-42.

They wouldn’t score again until nearly the 4-minute mark.

During that span, Butler made 7 of 11 shots, with three being 3-pointers, while the Wildcats went 0 of 6 from the field and turned the ball over twice.

A seven-point lead for Villanova became an 11-point advantage for Butler. Villanova would try to rally, but couldn’t pull it off as it saw its home winning run stopped, its seniors’ perfect Pavilion record blemished and its seven-game winning streak come to a halt.

Beyond it probably being immensely annoying to the senior class, the loss probably doesn’t hurt Villanova too much as it looks to hold on to a No. 1 seed, preferably in the East region. The Wildcats’ resume is still as strong as nearly anyone in the country and they are, after all, the defending champs. They’ll be fine.

For Butler, it’s a signature win for a team that’s had a number of really good victories, but a few confounding losses, like St. John’s on the road and to Creighton (without Maurice Watson) and Georgetown at home. Beating Villanova – at the Pavilion, no less – could be worth a seed line.

Kelan Martin was fantastic for Butler, going for 23 points and eight boards, while Kamar Baldwin went for 15 points off the bench.

Jalen Brunson led the way for Villanova with 24 points while Josh Hart had 18 points and six rebounds. Kris Jenkins struggled, going 1 of 8 from the floor while scoring eight points.

The Wildcats get a chance to start a new streak at the Pavilion on Saturday with Creighton coming to town.

 

No. 8 North Carolina stakes their claim to the title of ‘nation’s best’ with beatdown of No. 7 Louisville

CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 22:  Theo Pinson #1 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a play against the Louisville Cardinals during their game at the Dean Smith Center on February 22, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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North Carolina may not have anyone on their roster that sends chills down the spine of opposing coaches, and they may not have anyone on their roster that is going to be targeted by NBA franchises as lottery pick, and they may not be dominating the headlines like undefeated Gonzaga, reigning champ Villanova, winner of 13 straight Big 12 titles Kansas or even Tobacco Road rival Duke.

They’re not a sexy pick, they’re not the favorite in Vegas and they may finally crack the No. 1 seed line in all bracket projections after beating No. 7 Louisville 74-63 on Wednesday night, but at this point, I’m not sure that the Tar Heels aren’t the best team in college basketball.

‘The Best Team In College Basketball’ is not an easy title to earn this season, not because there are too many candidates but more because everyone of those candidates have some kind of glaring flaw that makes you wonder have they’ve made it to late-February with a winning record. Think: UCLA’s defense. Or maybe: Kansas’ total lack of front court depth. How about: Kentucky can’t shoot. And then there’s: Duke doesn’t have a point guard, or: Gonzaga doesn’t play anyone.

We can play that game with every team in the country.

In fact, I did, just last week on a podcast.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

North Carolina didn’t escape our wrath. There are question marks about Joel Berry II’s consistency, as he had a nasty habit of laying an egg every once in a while. Is that defense going to hold up for six games in a single-elimination tournament? Do they have enough consistent three-point shooting? Can Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson stay healthy?

Here’s the thing: I think the answer to all those questions is ‘yes’.

Justin Jackson has developed into a bonafide all-american and quite possibly the ACC Player of the Year. He’s a versatile scorer that is shooting the grip off the ball and has proven the ability to be the guy to take and make big shots for the Tar Heels this season. That’s taken some of the pressure off of Berry, who can spend more time as a secondary offensive weapon, facilitator and a leader than having to worry about carrying the team offensively. Theo Pinson’s return has opened some things up offensively, while UNC’s four-headed front court monster — Kennedy Meeks, Hicks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye — have shown that they can score in the post or off of a missed shot, where they lead the nation on offensive rebounding percentage.

And as far as the defense is concerned, they’re ranked 20th in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.com. Yes, a lot of that has to do with the pistol-whipping that was Gameday on Saturday night against Virginia, but Louisville, who was the third-best offensive team in ACC play, managed just 63 points in 73 possessions on Wednesday.

My point?

That defense doesn’t have to be great, it just has to be good enough, and it probably is.

But here’s the most important number to know: Two.

That’s how big North Carolina’s lead in the ACC is as of today. Louisville, Duke, Florida State and Notre Dame have all lost five times this year. As long as the Tar Heels can go into Pittsburgh and get a win over the Panthers, they are going to clinch a share of the ACC regular season, and they can lock up the outright league title before the showdown with the Dukies on the season’s final night.

The margins are thin, yes, but after Wednesday, North Carolina has as much claim to the title of ‘Nation’s Best’ as anyone in college basketball.

VIDEO: UNC fan ejected after heated exchange with Rick Pitino

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A UNC fan sitting court side in the Dean Dome on Wednesday was ejected from No. 8 North Carolina’s win over No. 7 Louisville after getting in a heated verbal exchange with Rick Pitino.

Cell phone video posted by a reporter attending the game showed Pitino having to be held back by members of his staff. According to ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor, who said she heard what the fan said, the line that set Pitino off was, “Pitino you suck.”

Bubble Banter: California, TCU and Syracuse with critical games tonight

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 10:  Ivan Rabb #1 of the California Golden Bears stands on the court during a quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament against the Oregon State Beavers at MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 10, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. California won 76-68.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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The latest NBC Sports bracketology can be found here. That is where the seeds you see listed below come from. 

This post will be updated throughout the night.

WINNERS

Syracuse (RPI: 84, KenPom: 48, first four out): Did the Orange just lock up their NCAA tournament bid? It’s going to be close, after John Gillon banked in a 23-foot three at the buzzer to send No. 10 Duke back to Durham with a loss. Here’s how it stands for the Orange: They’s 17-12 on the season and guaranteed to finish at least .500 in ACC play. They now have six top 50 wins and nine top 100 wins, but they also have three losses to sub-100 teams, 12 total losses and they play at Louisville on Saturday. The road hasn’t been kind to Syracuse, either; they’ve won just two roadies this season, at N.C. State and at Clemson.

Providence (RPI: 69, KenPom: 58, first four out): All of a sudden, Providence is one of the most interesting bubble teams in the country. Last week they beat Butler and Xavier at home, and on Wednesday night, they went into Creighton and picked off the Bluejays. The Friars are now 17-11 on the season with five top 50 wins, including three in the top 25. They are 8-8 against the top 100, but the problem is that they have one sub-100 loss and two more sub-200 losses, which is really, really bad. They won the games that they had to win to get themselves into this position, but I still would strongly recommend that they win out down the stretch.

Seton Hall (RPI: 47, KenPom: 59, play-in game): I think the Pirates may have just punched their ticket to the tournament as they beat Xavier at home on Wednesday. They have four top 50 wins — two away from home — and seven top 100 wins with just a single sub-100 loss. I won’t say they’re a lock because a loss to DePaul would not be good for them.

Wake Forest (RPI: 40, KenPom: 31, next four out): The Demon Deacons are still in the tournament picture after landing a comeback win over Pitt on Wednesday night, but they have some work left to do. They have no bad losses and seven top 100 wins, but that 1-9 record against the top 50 is an eyesore. They get Louisville at home next week. That’s a game they have to have.

Arkansas (RPI: 33, KenPom: 51, No. 9 seed): Arkansas kept themselves away from the danger of the cutline and just about locked up a bid with a win over Texas A&M on Wednesday. With three games left, and one of those three at Florida, it will be hard for the Razorbacks to miss the dance at this point. But this is also a team that lost to Missouri. They can pull anything off.

Michigan (RPI: 52, KenPom: 27, No. 10 seed): The Wolverines avoided disaster on Wednesday night using a late rally to avoid what would’ve been a killer of a loss at Rutgers. They were already in the tournament with a little bit of room to spare entering today, and this win — however ugly it was — doesn’t hurt that.

VCU (RPI: 26, KenPom: 41, No. 9 seed): The Rams beat Saint Louis on Wednesday night, which means that they didn’t lose to the Billikens. They are close to a lock by now, because two of their last three games are at Rhode Island and at Dayton — neither of which is a bad loss — and they close with GW at home. Even if they lose out, I think it will be hard for roughly ten teams to jump them in the bubble standings.

TCU (RPI: 54, KenPom: 43, play-in game): There’s no shame in losing at Kansas, which TCU did on Wednesday night, but they did miss out on an opportunity to land a résumé-defining win. The Horned Frogs are just 2-8 against the top 50 with just five top 100 wins, which isn’t a bad profile but it is one that lacks enough depth to feel anywhere near comfortable.

Illinois State (RPI: 36, KenPom: 50, No. 12 seed): The Redbirds beat Southern Illinois, so they’re still in the mix. But with just one top 75 win and three sub-100 losses, it’s going to be hard to get in if they don’t get that MVC automatic bid.

LOSERS

Cal (RPI: 39, KenPom: 47, No. 10 seed): Cal is probably still safe after losing at home to No. 6 Oregon on Wednesday, but it sure isn’t going to feel good that they were up by 15 and blew a lead in a game that would have cemented their status as an at-large team. As it stands, Cuonzo Martin’s team is 18-9 on the season without a single bad loss, but they’re only 1-7 against the top 50, their only win over a tournament team is USC and they may not play another RPI top 100 team this season. Don’t lose anymore.

Kansas State (RPI: 51, KenPom: 28, No. 11 seed): Bruce Weber really just cannot make this easy on himself. Kansas State lost for the seventh time in the last nine games on Wednesday, falling at home to Oklahoma State. The Wildcats have just four top 100 wins, but three of those are top 30 wins, two of them are on the road and one of those is at Baylor. That’s enough to keep them on the cut line for now, but with at Oklahoma, at TCU and Texas Tech left, I would urge them to find a way to turn this slump around.

Tennessee (RPI: 50, KenPom: 42, first four out): The Vols may have finally played themselves off the bubble — which is an exceedingly difficult thing to do this season — by losing at home to Vanderbilt. In fact, I think I would go as far as to say that the Commodores now have a better chance of getting an at-large bid than Tennessee.

Pitt (RPI: 59, KenPom: , next four out): Pitt was in the picture because the bubble is trash. They had a chance to land a nice win at a Wake Forest team that has really good computer numbers … and then blew a 19 point lead. I can’t see them getting an at-large bid at this point.

 

VIDEO: Brooks hits 3-pointer with 0.2 left to lift Oregon past Cal

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Dillon Brooks did it earlier against UCLA. Wednesday, he added Cal to his list.

The Oregon junior hit a game-winning 3-pointer with 0.2 left on the clock to give the sixth-ranked Ducks a 68-65 victory over the Bears after trailing by as many as 16 in the second half.

It’s the second time this season that Brooks, who finished with 22 points, has hit a game-winning three, and this one keeps the Ducks within a game of first-place Arizona in the Pac-12 standings.

The bigger story here may actually be Cal, as the Golden Bears gave away a 15-point lead in the final 10 minutes and a 10-point lead in the final five minutes in a game they desperately needed to win for their at-large résumé. Cal is just 1-7 against the RPI top 50 this season, and while they don’t have any bad losses to their name, this was their last chance to land a marquee win before the Pac-12 tournament.

I don’t think they’re in danger of missing the dance just yet, but I would not recommend tempting fate and losing down the stretch of the season.