By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Basketball Editor
FACTS & STATS: Site: Madison Square Garden (19,763) -- New York, New York.
Television: ESPN. Home Record: Syracuse 17-2, Louisville 15-1. Away Record:
Syracuse 6-5, Louisville 8-3. Neutral Record: Syracuse 3-1, Louisville 5-1.
Conference Record: Syracuse 11-7, Louisville 14-4. Series Record: Louisville
GAME NOTES: For the final time the storied Big East Conference Tournament will
hold its championship game at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, as the
defending champion Louisville Cardinals take on the Syracuse Orange.
In a brutal slugfest with top-seed Georgetown on Friday, Syracuse outlasted
the Hoyas in overtime, 58-55 to advance to the tournament final. This run has
been a bit of a surprise for Syracuse which didn't come into the postseason
with much momentum losing three of its last four games of the regular season.
The Orange are in search of their sixth tournament title and first since 2006
when current assistant coach Gerry McNamara carried the ninth-seeded Orange to
a stunning title run.
Louisville has saved its best basketball for the stretch run as its 69-57 win
over Notre Dame in the semifinals was its 12th win in the last 13 games. Nine
of those wins have come by at least 14 points for Louisville which is trying
to defend its tournament title from a year ago. Rick Pitino's Cardinals own
the best overall mark in the league (28-5) and are likely a lock for a No. 1
seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament should they close out strong.
These teams split the season series with the two games decided by a combined
seven points. In terms of the all-time series, the Cardinals hold a 13-7 edge,
making them one of a few teams in the conference to have an upper hand on the
Syracuse controlled most of the game with Georgetown and led by as many as 12
points in the second half. However, Georgetown closed regulation on a 14-6 run
to force overtime. C.J. Fair flew through the lane for a dunk with just over
two minutes to go in the extra session to give the Orange a four-point cushion
which proved to be enough to hold off the Hoyas, despite a number of missed
free throws from Syracuse.
Making a surprising impact in the semifinals was Baye Moussa Keita (3.3 ppg,
3.6 rpg), as the junior center saw more court time (41 minutes) than he had
all season and dropped in 13 points to go with eight rebounds. Even more
astonishing was his 7-of-7 effort from the free-throw line as he shoots under
50 percent from the stripe normally. James Southerland (14.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
knocked down four more shots from beyond the arc in the contest to tie
McNamara's Tournament record with 16 3-pointers total, while Michael Carter-
Williams (12.3 ppg, 7.8 apg), Fair (14.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Brandon Triche
(13.9 ppg) continued to be the primary contributors.
Pressure defense has been the calling card for Louisville all season and it
was yet again on Friday. Peyton Siva collected a Big East Tournament record
seven steals, as the Cardinals forced 16 turnovers from the normally careful
Creating havoc for opposing teams has been the key to the squad's success this
season. The Cardinals lead the Big East and are in the top five teams in the
nation in steals (10.7 spg). When foes are actually able to hold onto the ball
they are scoring just 57.9 points per game and shooting 38.8 percent from the
field. Russ Smith (18.2 ppg) has no fear as a scorer and will take shots from
anywhere on the floor as he proved on Friday, scoring a game-high 20 points.
Gorgui Dieng (10.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.6 bpg) is one of the best big men in the
conference with his ability to crash the boards and protect the rim. Siva (10
ppg, 5.8 apg) runs the point for the Cardinals, while Chane Behanan (10.1 ppg,
6.7 rpg), Wayne Blackshear (8.1 ppg) and Luke Hancock (7.4 ppg) add even more
Louisville has been on an absolute tear over the last two months of the
season. Syracuse is coming off an emotional overtime win over Georgetown which
may leave it drained on Saturday night. That could prove fatal against the
defensive pressure from the Cardinals.