Saturday, March 02, 2013

Louisville Beats Syracuse, Moves Closer To A 1 Seed

#10 Louisville 58, #12 Syracuse 53
Coming into this game we knew it would be a fun and a tight one. Louisville is the better team, but they were on the road and really struggled with the hometown reffing. At one point Rick Pitino's head nearly exploded after a series of 50-50 calls all went the way of Syracuse. What made this win surprising was that Louisville got a total zero out of Peyton Siva (0 points on 0-for-9 shooting). Luke Hancock had a big 12 points on off the bench (4-for-5 behind the arc), but the star was Russ Smith, who had 18 points and 5 assists, and also made most of the key plays down the stretch here.

Russ Smith gets a ton of criticism from the media for a few bad shots taken late in games, but the reality is that he shoulders an incredible amount of the offensive load for Louisville. He takes a full 33% of his team's shots when on the floor, and also gets 3.9 assists per 40 minutes. He generates half of the offense when on the floor for one of the nation's three best teams (which I think Louisville is). And this is why I think you can make a really good case for Russ Smith as Big East Player of the Year, even as everybody else seems to have called the race for Otto Porter. Porter is having a great season and might be an All-American, but in my opinion you can say the same thing about Russ Smith. I'd be fine with either of those two players winning the honor.

This will be a tough loss for Syracuse. They needed to take care of the ball against the pressing Louisville defense, and just could not. Brandon Triche was the worst offender, committing 7 turnovers with only 5 assists and 2-for-11 shooting. Not a good day for him. When Syracuse is not significantly outscoring their opponent in transition offense, games can become a real grind for them. And with six losses in their last ten games, Syracuse is fading fast in the Big East standings. They are in a tie for fifth with Pittsburgh at the moment. Keep in mind that a top four finish means a double-bye to the Big East tournament quarterfinals. Also, if the season ended now I'm pretty sure Syracuse would be a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and they could easily drop to a 5 if they don't play well in the Big East tournament. They shouldn't have much trouble with DePaul on Wednesday, but then have a key road game at Georgetown next Saturday. A loss there will probably cost them that Big East tournament double-bye.

At 12-4 in Big East play, Louisville remains in contention for a share of the Big East title. They are a game back of Georgetown in the loss column, though Georgetown has the tiebreaker. They will finish the regular season with two tough (but very winnable) home games, against Cincinnati on Monday and Notre Dame next Saturday. If Louisville wins those two games and wins the Big East tournament, you can make a very good case that they should earn a 1 seed. They'd need a little bit of help from other conferences, but it's a very reasonable scenario.

VCU 84, #20 Butler 52
This score is probably fair for how much VCU dominated this game. Yet was this result really a surprise to people? VCU is underrated and Butler is overrated to begin with, which is why Vegas had VCU as a 6.5 point favorite just from their computer ratings. But we've seen all season that Butler struggles so badly with teams that press, going all the way back to their near-collapse against North Carolina in Maui. In every way, VCU is Butler's kryptonite. I talked this morning about how VCU-6.5 was the most obvious line of the day. I'd have been shocked if VCU won by only single digits.

Now that previous paragraph said, I think that Butler is going to rapidly go from overrated to underrated. Butler doesn't have the personnel to handle VCU's press, but neither do a lot of teams. VCU is forcing turnovers on more than 29% of possessions this season, which leads the nation by far (Louisville is second best, at 27.5%). Brad Stevens is still, in my opinion, the best young coach in the nation, and his team has a lot of talent. If Butler slides into the 8/9 range in the bracket, that will make some 1 seed very unhappy. Butler would have been a very soft 4 or 5 seed, but they'll be a very scary 8 or 9 seed.

Asking whether Butler might be a bubble team isn't as silly of a question as you might think. They do have great wins (Indiana, Gonzaga, Marquette and North Carolina), but are only 7-7 against the RPI Top 100 with a 9-5 Atlantic Ten record and two tough games remaining (at UMass, vs Xavier). To be sure that they make the NCAA Tournament, I think they still need to win at least one of those two games, plus one more game in the A-10 tournament.

Speaking of the bubble, this win should quiet the VCU bubble talk. They are now 9-6 against the RPI Top 100 and 11-3 in A-10 play. They probably need one more win to completely lock up that at-large bid, but that's a near-certainty. Their next game will be on Wednesday, against Richmond.

Now that VCU is clearly Butler-kryptonite and St. Louis is VCU-kryptonite (since they never turn the ball - they committed only 8 turnovers against VCU on February 19th), it will be fascinating to see how the final A-10 tournament draw ends up. The winner may come down to whether St. Louis is drawn to play Butler or VCU in the A-10 semis.

Princeton 58, Harvard 53
I wanted to talk briefly about this game from last night. Nobody from the Ivy League is in at-large consideration this year (Harvard's suspensions sealed that one before the season started), but the Crimson had a chance to basically seal up the Ivy League title here. Instead, this loss drops them into a virtual tie with Princeton, and an increasing likelihood that these two teams will have to play in a play-off to decide the conference's automatic bid. Remember that while the Ivy League does not play a basketball tournament, they will play a playoff between any teams tied for first place - it will not be decided by any tiebreaking procedure.

This game was an absolute grind offensively for Harvard. They were 0-for-8 behind the arc and brought down only two offensive rebounds. In all, they hit only 16 shots from the field. Princeton got half that many just from Ian Hummer (23 points and 14 rebounds), who dominated an undersized Harvard front line. It goes without saying that Kyle Casey would have been useful.

Both of these teams now control their own destiny. Both can assure at least a share of the Ivy League title by winning out. Harvard's toughest remaining game will probably be tonight, at Pennsylvania. Next week they'll be at home for Columbia and Cornell. Princeton has a tougher path, with four games to go which include road games at Pennsylvania and Yale. Their next game will be a relatively soft one, though, at home against Dartmouth.

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