NEW YORK -- Any revolutionary will tell you: It's what you do after the coup d'état that matters.
The Catholic 7 declared independence, circled wagons against the Big East football schools, painfully severed ties with charter members that remained faithful to King Football and ultimately won the rights to both the Big East name and its tournament castle in Midtown Manhattan. In this, the FINAL BIG EAST TOURNAMENT AS WE KNOW IT (despite the fact that many of the same teams will be back in the same arena under the same name next year), the Catholic 7 must prove that they are worthy to rule a power conference.
With the world focused on all things Catholic, it was up to the seven defenders of the faith to deliver a papal nurple to their departing brethren. A Big East with semifinals populated by Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Cincinnati would be a Big East ill-prepared for the future. Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette needed to start asserting themselves on Thursday; Providence, Seton Hall, DePaul and St. John's had already fallen in a doomed Children's Crusade.
The Big East quarterfinals were not just a basketball holy war, but the last of the basketball holy wars. As with all holy wars, casualties were many and results were inconclusive.
Louisville 74, Villanova 55. The margin was 19 points, but the game wasn't that close. Louisville smothered the Villanova offense with presses and traps all game, deflecting countless passes and keeping the Wildcats from establishing any offensive flow. The Cardinals used their athletic advantage to get their shooters open looks all evening. If anyone on Louisville besides Russ Smith (28 points, 4-of-6 on three pointers) had his stroke, the Cardinals would have won by 30 points.
Villanova had the most to prove of any team in the semifinals. Inexperienced, energetic and unpredictable, the Wildcats entered the game as boisterous bubble puppies a win away from creating a consensus among bracketologists. But instead of the giant killers who beat Louisville in mid-January and Georgetown last week, the Villanova team that had trouble with New Jersey Institute of Technology in late December took the floor.
Streaky freshman Ryan Arcidiacono, who was ice cold in Villanova's win over St. John's, went 1-of-8 from the field. Darrun Hilliard committed seven turnovers. JayVaughn Pinkston needed 17 shots for his 21 points, often driving to the rim but failing to get the roll. With the Wildcats coughing up 24 turnovers (18 in the first half), the Cardinals could keep clanging until Smith and Peyton Siva (10 points, 3-6 on three pointers) nailed enough wide-open threes from the corners to pull away.
One possession sums up how the night went for Villanova. Trailing 43-28, Pinkston drove, missed a layup, grabbed his own rebound, missed a jump shot and rebounded again. He kicked the ball out to Hilliard, who missed a three pointer. Mouphtaou Yarou grabbed the rebound but missed the put-back. Yarou collected his own garbage and kicked out to Arcidiacono, who missed a three, with Louisville finally grabbing a rebound. The sequence took almost a minute of game time, featured three shots from the paint and two pretty good looks from the arc, and netted zero points.
Louisville is playing for one of the top two seeds in a bracket; the Cardinals will get one, but it will not do them much good if they cannot shoot better in the tourney than they did on Thursday. Villanova's resume looks like it was assembled randomly. Nights like this make it clear why: Few teams have as high a variance as the Wildcats, who rely heavily on frosh Arcidiacono and sophomores Pinkston and Hilliard. They may be gassed. They may be gearing up to play sleeper. And they may not even make the NCAA tournament.
Georgetown 62, Cincinnati 43. The Bearcats took the floor hot off a win against Providence and looking ridiculous in their Tiger Beat "Give up on Life" pajama shorts. Yes, Louisville is also wearing acid trip flashback shorts in the postseason, but theirs are not brown with beige flecks and neon orange trim. Unfortunately for the Bearcats, their shorts were not the ugliest thing on the court for most of the game.
Georgetown held a 24-8 lead with 5:38 to play in the first quarter after back-to-back three pointers by Otto Porter Jr. (18 points) and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera (13 off the bench). Little went right for the Bearcats in the first half until Cashmere Wright (14 points) nailed three three-pointers in the final 4:37. Until that streak, both Wright and leading Cincy scorer Sean Kilpatrick were scoreless; the Bearcats were shooting 1-of-6 on three-pointers and 3-of-6 from the line. Cincy coach Mick Cronin even picked up a technical for arguing a series of (admittedly dubious) calls, and the Hoyas reached the bonus with 9:35 to play.
Wright's spree cut the Cincy deficit to 29-24 at half. A 7-2 Cincy run to start the second half tied the game, and the Bearcats briefly held a 33-31 lead. But Georgetown's superior depth and offensive versatility allowed it to regain control. Smith-Rivera and Markel Starks (14 points) hit open threes as the Hoyas moved the ball well around the perimeter. Nate Lubick (6 points) scored some easy layups after heady feeds from Porter and Jabril Trawick (9 points).
Cincinnati is basically a three-man offensive team, and with Kilpatrick looking gassed (he finished 0-of-8 on three pointers and spent a few possessions loitering in the corner, grabbing his goofy shorts), the Bearcats were at a loss about what do in their half-court offense. Georgetown's runs coincided with Wright's trips to the bench, and the Hoyas pulled away as Porter sank free throws on one end and the Bearcats tried in vain to find their shooters on the other end.
The Bearcats appear safe for an at-large bid. Come bracket time, keep in mind just how reliant they are on Kilpatrick, Wright, JaQuon Parker and three-pointers. A few days off may be the best thing to happen to them as their snipers regain feeling in their legs.
Notre Dame 73, Marquette 65. While Louisville and Cincinnati's '80's retro shorts wanted you to pour some sugar on them, Notre Dame's neon green uniforms just wanted to wake you up before they go-go and leave the conference. Pat Connaughton woke up from an early-game slump to score 18 points, all of them on threes, while Jerian Grant contributed 17 points, six rebounds and six assists for an Irish team that is not going anywhere yet; they will face Louisville on Friday.
Marquette took a 17-4 lead just before the midway point of the first half, then called it a night. A six-and-a-half minute run with no field goals and four turnovers helped Notre Dame adjust its offense from ice-cold three pointers to midrange jumpers and entry passes to draw contact. Connaughton also found his stroke during a run that saw the Irish take a 28-25 lead at half.
Marquette guard Vander Blue (12 points) began driving the lane more aggressively in the second half, with Jamil Wilson (16 points) contributing jumpers from the wing. But Marquette suffered lapses on both ends of the floor. Wilson was 5-of-12, and some of his attempts missed the rim entirely. Davante Gardner, the Golden Eagles' top big man, was invisible until late in the game and finished with 11 points.
Miscommunication led to several easy Irish buckets. At one point midway through the second half, Gardner left the paint to defend a high screen, but no one rotated to replace him, allowing Garrick Sherman (16 points) an easy layup on a dish from Grant. A miscommunication between Trent Lockett (who turned the ball over five times) and Gardner on an entry pass led to a Marquette turnover with 3:57 to play. Jack Cooley stole Lockett's errant pass, and Connaughton drained a three-pointer that gave the Irish a seven-point lead and marked the beginning of the endgame.
The Golden Eagles should have won a game in which Notre Dame shot 7-of-20 from beyond the arc and four Marquette players finished with double-digit point totals. Thursday's game was a squandered opportunity: The Golden Eagles coughed up a lead and played poor situational basketball. Notre Dame, meanwhile, committed just seven turnovers and adjusted wisely when the threes were not falling early. It was a solid win for an NCAA tournament bound Midwestern parochial school; unfortunately for the Catholic 7, it happened to be the wrong one.
Syracuse 62, Pittsburgh 59: Also on Thursday's Big East slate: a game with neither religious nor bubble implications between two longtime members in their final Big East tournament
When Syracuse lost 61-39 to Georgetown last week, James Southerland went 0-of-7 from the field. John Thompson Sr. (father of the current coach) said it was time to "kiss Syracuse goodbye." Jim Boeheim called the game "a blip," even though it was the Orange's fourth loss in five games.
The elder Thompson spoke too soon, and Syracuse will have a chance to erase that blip after this tough win. Southerland scored 20 points and was 6-of-6 on three pointers. Michael Carter-Williams added 11 points and seven assists, including a critical steal and four free-throws in the final minute after Pitt cut a Syracuse lead that had been 13 at half down to one point.
Both of these will be in the NCAA tournament, and both can beat you multiple ways. The Orange set crisp screens away from the ball to set up Southerland's catch-and-shoot game, and Southerland can also score from the post. C.J. Fair can create and beat you off the dribble. Brandon Triche (12 points) does it all in the backcourt: passing, screening, cutting, spotting up and little things like forcing jump balls. Syracuse has length, even at guard, allowing it to collapse on interior defense. Pitt has an effective inside-out game: Talib Zanna and Steven Adams (combined 16 points, 12 rebounds) can both finish down low or kick out from danger, Tray Woodall and James Robinson (22 points) spot up well after feeding the big guys, and Lamar Patterson (14 points, 11 rebounds) does a little of everything.
But there are shortcomings. Fair falls in love with his creativity and has shot selection issues: He finished 5-of-16 and spent much of the game dribbling into trouble. Carter-Thomas attempts some ill-advised cross-court passes and is just coming off a slump during the Orange losing streak in which he took too many of his own shots. Patterson is the only Panthers player who can create his own looks. The teams were a combined 17-of-29 from the line, and Carter-Williams' end-of-game heroics were set up by a miss by Zanna, who could have tied the game by completing a three-point play.
Both of these teams will be vulnerable in the NCAA tourney's third round to some team that can contain Southerland and Woodall, collapse on Patterson and Fair, and force the opponent to win at the line. Until then, we got to enjoy one last grueling Big East battle between two signature schools, at least until Friday night.
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I've been doing weekly S-curves for a couple of months now, but now that we're two days away from Selection Sunday, it feels negligent not to do one every hour. (CBS has an excellent bracketology blog that's scrolling up and down my imaginary Google Glasses. So let's go short on the intro here and just get down to business with the bubble.
To my eyes, after Thursday's results, we don't have much more clarity than we did before the games started. Teams like Charlotte, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Southern Mississippi got wins in games where a loss would have eliminated them, and teams that got big wins (Illinois, Iowa State) were probably in already. So let's put together our S-curve, including teams that are probably and/or comfortably in, and then leave a big blank space we'll get back to afterward.
S-CURVE (automatic qualifiers in CAPS, teams that have officially clinched in bold)
No. 1: DUKE, GONZAGA, INDIANA, LOUISVILLE
No. 2: KANSAS, Georgetown, Michigan State, Miami (Fla.)
No. 3: NEW MEXICO, Michigan, Florida, Ohio State
No. 4: Kansas State, Arizona, Oklahoma State, Syracuse
No. 5: Wisconsin, ST. LOUIS, Marquette, Nevada-Las Vegas
No. 6: Ucla, Notre Dame, Butler, Virginia Commonwealth
No. 7: Colorado State, Pittsburgh, CREIGHTON, North Carolina
No. 8: MEMPHIS, Missouri, Illinois, N.C. State
No. 9: Oregon, San Diego State, Cincinnati, California
No. 10: Villanova, Colorado, Temple, Iowa State
No. 11: Wichita State, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oklahoma
No. 12: BELMONT, BUCKNELL (LAST FOUR SPOTS)
No. 13: DAVIDSON, VALPARAISO, AKRON, STEPHEN F. AUSTIN
No. 14: HARVARD, LONG BEACH STATE, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE, IONA
No. 15: MONTANA, NEW MEXICO STATE, FLORIDA GULF COAST, LIU BROOKLYN
No. 16: STONY BROOK, JAMES MADISON, WESTERN KENTUCKY (play-in), SOUTHERN (play-in), MORGAN STATE (play-in), LIBERTY (play-in)
I'm gonna consider everybody from No. 10 on up to be in, comfortably or otherwise. Also, on the No. 11 line, it's tough to say those four teams aren't in as well. If Kentucky loses Friday, the Wildcats could drop out, but I continue to believe the NCAAs will leave out Kentucky only if they have absolutely no choice: A win Friday should do it. You can argue about Thursday losers Minnesota and Oklahoma, and they're certainly reeling, but I still see them a small cut above the last four out. (That could change with some tourney upsets this last weekend, anyway.)
That leaves us with the following teams battling for those last four spots:
Middle Tennessee State
(Sorry, Arizona State and Xavier. Your losses Thursday knocked you out of the discussion. You were barely in it anyway.)
Of those teams, only Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana Tech (who lost a killer Thursday night to Texas-San Antonio), Boise State and St. Mary's have no more games to play and therefore have to sit around nervously biting things. I'm being sorta nice including Charlotte and Massachusetts; I'm at the A-10 Tournament as I type this and am feeling charitable.
Tennessee and Alabama, helpfully, play each other Friday, and it's a good bet that the loser is out. The winner isn't guaranteed a spot, but the loser has no chance. They're not the only teams that can do themselves some good Friday. Iowa gets Michigan State, La Salle gets Butler, Mississippi gets Missouri, Virginia gets NC State and Massachusetts gets Temple. (Southern Mississippi can only hurt itself against UTEP.) You can guarantee the teams whose seasons are done will be cheering for the favorites in all those games.
When we're this close, a lot of this just comes down to which teams I think will help themselves most tomorrow (and the rest of the weekend), and which won't. Obviously, how some of these conference tournaments turn out matter a ton too. So adjust through the weekend accordingly. But here's my best guess as to how it turns out:
Last Four In: St. Mary's, Tennessee, Virginia, Middle Tennessee State
First Four Out: La Salle, Baylor, Iowa, Boise State
Next Four Out: Mississippi, Southern Mississippi, Alabama, Massachusetts
As for the No. 1 seeds, Gonzaga seems to be a lock unless the committee has just decided not to give a mid-major a top seed no matter what, and with wins over Illinois and Maryland, respectively, Duke and Indiana should be set as well. The last No. 1 seed should go to whomever wins the Big East tournament, Louisville or Georgetown, and if neither of them do, and Kansas wins the Big 12 tournament, the Jayhawks should get it. If neither Louisville nor Georgetown with the Big East and Kansas doesn't win the Big 12, Miami (Fla.), Michigan State or even Ohio State could sneak in if they win their conference tourney.
This is so much fun and the tournament is still days away. But it is so close now.