Saturday, March 12, 2011

Full Court Press: Big East Championship

Preston Knowles and Louisville play for second Big East title in three years tonight against UConn. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

After four days, fourteen games, and countless memories that will last a lifetime; the Big East tournament reaches its conclusion tonight at Madison Square Garden as Connecticut looks to win an unprecedented five games in as many days against 2009 Big East champion Louisville, who makes its return to the title game for the first time since cutting down the nets at the Garden against Syracuse in 2009. With tipoff just 30 minutes away, we'll get you caught up before the ball goes up in the air.

Connecticut Huskies (9th seed, 25-9)
Head Coach: Jim Calhoun

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Kemba Walker (6-1 Jr., 23.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.3 APG, 1.9 SPG, 43% FG, 81% FT, 34% 3pt)
SG: Jeremy Lamb (6-5 Fr., 10.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.6 APG, 47% FG, 78% FT)
SF: Roscoe Smith (6-8 Fr., 6.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 37% FG, 78% FT)
PF: Alex Oriakhi (6-9 So., 10.0 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 51% FG, 63% FT)
C: Charles Okwandu (7-0 Sr., 2.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 45% FG, 53% FT)

Key Reserves:
G Shabazz Napier (6-0 Fr., 8.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 39% FG, 76% FT, 35% 3pt)
F Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (6-7 So., 6.3 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 44% FG, 81% FT)

Keys To Victory:
One For The Thumb - No team has ever attempted to win five games in as many days to win its conference tournament, so the Huskies have made history no matter what happens tonight. Jim Calhoun's team has already played their way into the top half of whatever regional they are selected into tomorrow night, at least as a 4 seed and maybe even a 3 with a win tonight.
Gerry Who? - Every year, the name Gerry McNamara gets brought up when legends are made during the Big East tournament after the Syracuse guard singlehandedly lifted the Orange from the #9 seed that UConn is playing as this week to a conference title. This year, Gerry Mac is being overshadowed by Kemba Walker. The Rice High School product is averaging almost 28 points per game this week in victories over DePaul, Georgetown, Pitt and Syracuse; and the scary concept to the casual fan is that Walker isn't done yet. The point guard and first team All-Big East selection has gone for at least 20 in six straight games, and UConn will need his explosiveness one more time to win their first conference championship since 2004.
Unsung Heroes - The UConn bench has yielded a star performance each night this week. From Alex Oriakhi's double-double to Tyler Olander's career night last night against Syracuse, it seems like Jim Calhoun has found a different reserve to pick up the pieces when Walker is unable to find a road to the basket. With a Louisville lineup that plays guard-heavy, it wouldn't be surprising to see Shabazz Napier be the go-to guy off the bench for Calhoun tonight as he continues to capitalize on his audition to crack the Huskies' lineup when Walker almost certainly declares for the NBA Draft this June.

Louisville Cardinals (3rd seed, 25-8)
Head Coach: Rick Pitino

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Peyton Siva (5-11 So., 10.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 5.2 APG, 2.0 SPG, 45% FG, 67% FT)
SG: Preston Knowles (6-1 Sr., 14.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.8 SPG, 38% FG, 81% FT, 39% 3pt)
SG: Chris Smith (6-2 Jr., 9.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.4 APG, 45% FG, 69% FT, 40% 3pt)
SG: Kyle Kuric (6-4 Jr., 10.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 52% FG, 83% FT, 45% 3pt)
PF: Terrence Jennings (6-10 Jr., 9.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 53% FG, 66% FT)

Key Reserves:
G Mike Marra (6-5 So., 6.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 33% FG, 79% FT)
C Gorgui Dieng (6-10 Fr., 5.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 62% FG, 56% FT)

Keys To Victory:
Bombs Away - Even during the days of Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia, Pitino's Cardinals have always been an outside threat; and at 36 percent from beyond the arc this season, Louisville is no different. The Cards, much like UConn on their bench, have found a different shooter to step up every night. One night it could be Kyle Kuric, Mike Marra the next, or senior leader Preston Knowles the night after. Fellow guard Chris Smith, who also shoots 40 percent from three-point range, is also a potent and capable weapon if Louisville looks to bury the Huskies with early daggers.
Board Meeting - UConn had been getting outplayed on the glass before this week during Big East play, and Louisville needs to continue that trend if they have any hope of raising a trophy at the Garden for the second time in three years. The good thing for the Cardinals is that after Alex Oriakhi, UConn's rebounders aren't as strong as some of the other teams in the conference. Louisville outlasted a scrappy Marquette team and a shooting threat in Notre Dame to get this matchup; and although the primary target will be stopping the one-man show that is Kemba Walker, the Cardinals need to get the advantage in the rebound department to effectively put UConn away.
Special K - Preston Knowles entered this season as Louisville's lone senior, which helps Rick Pitino next season in that the rest of the team comes back next year. However, what people did not expect from Knowles was his ability to step up and be among the more underrated players in the conference in the absence of Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith, who graduated following last season. Knowles may look like a streaky shooter on paper; but is anything but on the court, as the senior is a feared man any time the ball is in his hands.

So, Who Wins?
In one corner, you have a team that has literally run the gauntlet by winning four games in as many days. On the other bench lies a team that is simply the best one standing after the early exits of Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, who were regarded as the class of the Big East throughout the year. The deciding factor in this matchup is overall depth of each side. UConn has solid players after Walker, but Jim Calhoun's squad still has not been able to find their way for long stretches during a game if their star is exposed. This alone is enough to tip the scales in favor of the Cardinals, who will take advantage of a fatigued UConn en route to a second conference championship in three years before they are the favorites to make it three out of four next year.

Your Final: Louisville 78, Connecticut 69

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