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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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_