Despite the fact that the distance between first and second place is just two games with five to go many have conceded the regular season crown to #2 Syracuse (25-1, 12-1), and rightfully so as the Orange have been head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. The race to observe has involved the other three double-bye slots, and #18 Louisville (20-5, 8-4) is a player in that regard. That makes Monday's game at the KFC Yum! Center an important one, with the Cardinals also in position to use the win to bolster their resume from an NCAA tournament seeding standpoint.
And it's also interesting that as Big East members the Cardinals have won seven of the eight meetings (seven straight after losing the first in 2006), a fact that fans of the Orange have gotten tired of hearing at this point. Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim both use the 2-3 zone as their primary defense, although their teams reach that alignment in different ways. Louisville likes to force a frenetic tempo with their full-court pressure, falling back into the zone if they aren't successful in forcing a turnover, while Syracuse simply gets back into their spots (but when they do press it tends to stun opponents that aren't prepared for the onslaught).
A surprising stat in this matchup is that the Orange have been the better team when it comes to forcing turnovers, as opponents average 17.4 turnovers per game to Louisville's opponents handing the ball over 15.9 times per contest. Syracuse's oppents turn the ball over on 26.1% of their possessions (Louisville's opponents: 22.9%; numbers per statsheet.com), and the athletic ability combined with reads made by their defenders is the reason why. He may not start but sophomore guard Dion Waiters (12.4 ppg, 2.7 apg) has been one of the Big East's best players this season, and he leads the team with 2.1 steals per game.
Waiters is an explosive athlete in the open floor, possessing the abilty to finish above the rim and with contact. Whether it's Waiters or starters Scoop Jardine (8.7 ppg, 4.9 apg) and Brandon Triche (9.7 ppg, 2.9 apg) leading the break the Orange can finish with the best of them thanks to their wings in addition to the guard. Senior Kris Joseph (14.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is Syracuse's leading scorer and their most efficient when factoring in the number of opportunities he gets to score (21.6% of possessions according to kenpom.com), and sophomore C.J. Fair (8.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg) has been productive as one of Syracuse's first players off the bench.
Syracuse's most important player on the defensive end averages 7.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game, but to measure the impact of Fab Melo solely with numbers would be a mistake. Melo, one of the most improved players in the country, gives the Orange a "security blanket" in the middle of the zone, something that was missing when he had to sit out to attend to an academic issue. Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita may being height but neither has the strength of Melo nor the defensive savvy needed to make plays via either blocked shot or taking a charge. Louisville also leans heavily on their center on the defensive end of the floor, and just like Melo their big man has improved a great deal since last season.
Gorgui Dieng (10.1 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 3.2 bpg) has not only been a tough defender but he's also become more of a threat on the offensive end of the floor, pairing up with Chane Behanan (9.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg) to form one of the Big East's better frontcourt tandems. But for his (and Behanan's) improvement there are still issues when it comes to operating in the high post, a situation remedied earlier this season by moving wing Kyle Kuric to the four. Kuric (13.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is a Swiss army knife of sorts for Louisville as his vast array of skills makes the senior a threat from multiple areas on the floor. Look for Kuric to see some time in the high post to help with distribution of the basketball against the Syracuse zone.
The play on the perimeter is where the Cardinals have been a bit unpredictable, and the play of the guards is a big reason why Louisville turns the ball over 14.7 times per game. Point guard Peyton Siva (8.5 ppg, 5.7 apg) leads the team in assists but also turns the ball over 3.4 times per game, and the electrifying Russ Smith (12.3 ppg) also has the issue of getting out of control on occasion. Chris Smith 10.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg) has been one of Louisville's steadier players while also ranking second on the team in assists, and the presence of freshman Wayne Blackshear is a bonus as he scored 13 points and grabbed four rebounds in Saturday's 77-74 win at West Virginia in his first game of the season.
Louisville's been the better rebounding team to date and they'll need to continue that as the Orange don't do a good job of keeping teams off the offensive glass. But turnovers, especially those of the "live-ball" variety, will ultimately determine the outcome. If Siva and Smith get out of control and give Syracuse too many odd-man situations the Orange are going to win by a good margin. But if they can take care of the basketball and knock down some perimeter shots without relying too much on the three (Louisville only makes 32.8% of their shots from deep), the Cardinals can push their win streak in this series to eight.
Both Big 12 games are critical to the unranked teams as Iowa State and reeling Kansas State have work to do if they're to guarantee themselves inclusion in the Field of 68. The Cyclones visit a Baylor team that should be happy they're done with Kansas and Missouri until the conference tournament as Scott Drew's team went 0-4 against those two. Frankly guys such as Perry Jones III need to show up on a consistent basis, and the task of dealing wth Royce White should be enough to motivate the Baylor bigs to do so.
As for the Wildcats, they need to toughen up with in-state rival Kansas visiting, as Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman punished K-State in their loss to Texas on Saturday. Kansas brings Thomas Robinson and the much-improved Jeff Withey in the paint, so if Frank Martin's team is to begin a run at a tournament bid Thomas Gipson, Jamar Samuels and the rest of the K-State frontcourt needs to bring it.
And the top two teams in the SWAC face off in Baton Rouge as Southern hosts first-place Mississippi Valley State. The Jaguars, who are ineligible for the NCAA tournament due to an unsatisfactory APR score, are 9-3 in league play and at the very least should be motivated to avenge the 77-56 beating they took in Itta Bena last month.
MVSU's Terrence Joyner and Paul Crosby lead the way for Sean Woods' squad, which has five players averaging at least 8.7 points per game. And at 12-0 in conference play a win would move the Delta Devils closer to their their first regular season crown since the 2006-07 season. A key for Southern will be to keep the Delta Devils off of the offensive glass, as their opponents grab an average of 14.0 offensive rebounds per game.
Top 25 Games
7:00 PM (2) Syracuse at (18) Louisville (ESPN)
9:00 PM (5) Kansas at Kansas State (ESPN)
7:00 PM Iowa State at (10) Baylor (ESPNU)
NCAA Division I Games
7:00 PM Belmont at Stetson
7:00 PM Jacksonville at East Tennessee State (ESPN3)
7:00 PM South Carolina State at North Carolina Central
7:00 PM North Florida at USC Upstate
7:05 PM Lipscomb at Florida Gulf Coast
7:30 PM Bethune-Cookman at Howard
7:30 PM Delaware State at Morgan State
8:00 PM Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Alcorn State
8:00 PM Savannah State at North Carolina A&T
8:00 PM McNeese State at Northwestern State
8:30 PM Grambling State at Prairie View A&M
8:30 PM Mississippi Valley State at Southern University
9:00 PM Maryland-Eastern Shore at Coppin State (ESPNU)
9:00 PM Jackson State at Texas Southern
9:05 PM Montana Tech at Utah Valley