Lessons learned from the quarterfinals

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All season we heard how this was the best the Big East have ever been from top to bottom. Maybe it’s time, though, we start paying attention to the quality of the heavyweights.

Far more NBA talent was on Big East rosters last season, yet three of the four teams that received double-byes in the conference tournament lost their first game in the quarterfinals. Last night, three of the top four seeds advanced to the semis. And the one team that lost, Pitt, will still earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament (we think).

“I’ve said for two years now, when you sit around till Thursday it’s not good,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said after a 79-73 win over St. John’s. “I think it’s difficult for the top seeds to do that. I’m glad we won so that everybody doesn’t think I’m crying but … I don’t think it’s a good way to do it.”  

If you come out flat on Thursday, there’s a good chance you would have come out flat on Tuesday or Wednesday, too. We’re fine with the double-bye, but it wouldn’t even be a concern if the conference went back to allowing just the top 12 teams into the field.

Now, on to the lessons we learned in the quarterfinals:

  • Both Syracuse and UConn are peaking “skying” at the right time:

March is all about hitting your stride right?

“It’s not [peaking], we are skying at the right moment,” said UConn freshman Jeremy Lamb after a 76-74 win over top-seeded Pittsburgh.

He has a point. Peaking means you’re playing your best brand of basketball all season. What UConn and Syracuse are doing is completely different. Both have added another tool to their woodshed, and that makes them both legitimate national title contenders.

Let’s start with the Huskies. In a December loss to Pitt it was a one-man show behind Kemba Walker, who ended up drilling the buzzer-beater to sink Pitt yesterday. Over the last three days, though, Jim Calhoun’s team has gotten out in transition and received much needed help from their big boys inside. It outscored supposedly the most balanced team in the conference 20-0 on points off turnovers. No one attacks the basket like the Huskies in the open floor.

“They take it right at you, no hesitation, no nothing,” said Pitt guard Gilbert Brown.

There was certainly no hesitation by Walker, who scored 24 points and dished out five assists. He took advantage of an inexcusably flawed Jamie Dixon principle to make a switch on pick-and-rolls and the end of ball games. This time, Walker’s tired legs suddenly woke up, as overmatched center Gary McGhee defended him in isolation at the top of the key.

“The play before I missed a shot and my teammates told me stay aggressive, and anybody in the world knew that ball was coming to me,” he said. “I knew McGhee was going to switch and I knew if I had him it was going to be time to go and that’s the way it was. And I was able to break him down and get a clean look at the basket.”

Walker’s jumpers make the highlights, but it’s his improved play as a teammate that makes all the difference for UConn. He crossed over Trevon Woodall more than a couple times during the game, driving and kicking to open teammates for spot-up jumpers. He picked up Shabazz Napier after the freshmen misfired on three straight attempts and told him to keep shooting.

“He could shoot all day if he wanted,” Napier said. “The confidence he has in us to rise to his level makes us better.”

The up-tempo pace may catch up to them tonight against Syracuse, but that doesn’t really matter. UConn is getting consistent production from Alex Oriakhi, whose 13 points and seven boards neutralized Pitt’s front line, and gelling in the open floor. They’ve already done enough in New York to feel very confident to make a Final Four run. What happens tonight and possibly tomorrow will only inflate that brashness.

Of course it’s not the only team with an added element. Boeheim unleashed freshman center Fab Melo, who scored a season-high 12 points in 22 minutes, along with two blocks and drew two charges. Before this game, Syracuse was considered probably a Sweet 16 team at best.

“I don’t know if our whole perspective has changed, we were pretty confident to begin with,” said fellow big Rick Jackson, who went for 10 points and nine rebounds. “We certainly feel like we haven’t shown what we’re capable of yet. Hopefully we will.”

The Orange were capable of hanging with just about anyone when they run out in transition and stay active in their 2-3 zone. Now, they might be capable of hanging another banner in the Carrier Dome if the 7-foot Brazilian import keeps schooling fools with head-fakes down low.

“He might have been a little bit of the forgotten [man],” said fellow freshman C.J. Fair. “This year has been a tough battle for all of us, not just Fab. We kind of thought maybe we’d see a lot more of him next year and what all he could do.”

It turns out, they won’t have to wait that long.

“I am starting to give back the support that all of Syracuse gave to me,” said Melo who has only been playing basketball for five years. “I am glad I had a great game today. And I hope tomorrow to do the same.

“I knew I could do more than what I’ve shown.”

  • Notre Dame and Louisville are ready for the big stage:

 

The two top 3-point shooting teams in the Big East routed each of their opponents last night in the quarterfinals by shooting better than 42 percent from beyond the arc.

The Irish are playing the rest of this tournament to grab a No. 1 seed, while Louisville could earn a three-seed with a couple more wins.

Ben Hansbrough continues to be underestimated off the dribble, as he had six assists to go with his 23 points. The Big East Player of the Year isn’t out to prove he’s better than Walker or anyone else. He just wants to win.

“There’s a stigma around us,” he said about a program that seems to fall flat in the NCAA tournament no matter how much momentum they carry into March. “This is the best team I’ve ever been on. We just need to keep it going.”

So does Louisville, who bounced back from an embarrassing last-second loss on a silly Preston Knowles’ foul in the regular season finale at West Virginia. Knowles went for 15 points and seven assists and might be the best all-around team leader in the conference.

We weren’t sure the Cardinals had that chest-out attitude this season, but after holding a Sweet 16-contender and the conference’s best offense to just 56 points, they just might be adequately equipped for March after all.

“Who says we aren’t confident?” asked Knowles. “If people aren’t paying attention to us, we’ll just have to make them.”

 


Stay with us this weekend as we bring you more live updates from the Big East tournament at MSG. And catch me on Fox Sports Radio’s "Zakk and Jack" Friday morning for more college hoops chatter.



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