published Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Low scoring but great offense in Syracuse-Wisconsin gem

You don't think of 64-63 games as offensive masterpieces, but that is exactly what went down when Syracuse beat Wisconsin by exactly that score in Thursday's first East Regional semifinal in Boston.

There were just 52 possessions in the game. In a typical Wisconsin game this season, that would have meant its opponent scored just 45 points, as the Badgers gave up 0.86 points per possession. The 'Cuse scored 1.23 points per possession and needed every one against a team that almost three-balled it out of the tournament.

There were two great runs in the game, either of which would have knocked a lesser team out. Syracuse hit seven consecutive shots in the first half to open up a 33-23 point lead, getting nearly 1.4 points per possession to that point.

Wisconsin is not made to come back. So the game really should have been over. Only the Badgers hit an insane six consecutive threes in just four second-half minutes. Wisconsin never scores 18 points in four minutes. If it had been playing a lesser team, the game would have been done.

Syracuse, however, just kept driving the ball and getting one great shot after another. Down the stretch, after watching the Badgers make 14 of their first 22 threes, the Orange pushed them so far out beyond the arc that they were finally too far. And they missed their last five treys, including a no-hoper on the final possession.

Syracuse's defense gets most of the notice, but its offense won this game, as it has won so many games. It typically averages 1.17 points per possession, so it was fairly close to its norm against a team that had the fourth most efficient defense in the country.

The Badgers' 1.21 points per possession (mostly because of those 14 threes) are almost never going to lose for them. They just happened to be playing a team that has been winning every kind of game all season.

THE TWO FOULS

Coaches all over America take players out in the first half as soon as they get two fouls. The unanswered question is why.

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, one of the best in the business, did it when big men Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz each got a pair midway through the first half. Wisconsin had some control when they went out. Bruesewitz got back late in the first, Berggren not until the second. Neither player ever got any offensive rhythm again.

I hate it when coaches do it automatically. This seemed especially strange as it was going to be such a low-possession game where nobody figured to foul out. And nobody for Wisconsin did in a game with just 25 personal fouls called.

BY THE NUMBERS

The teams combined for just 12 turnovers ... Wisconsin had 15 assists on its 21 field goals ... The Badgers have to be the only team in America that finishes games with more passes than dribbles. It is old-fashioned, but very comforting to know that old-school still has a chance ... Syracuse won despite getting outscored from the arc, 42-15. The Orange did it because it absolutely owned the lane.

PITINO REMEMBERED

Louisville was playing as well as anybody in the 2009 tournament heading into the regional final against Michigan State. The Spartans, as their senior star (then a freshman) Draymond Green remembered this week, were "supposed to get run out the gym. But we ran them out the gym." They did indeed and eventually lost to North Carolina in the championship game. Louisville and its coach were embarrassed.

Rick Pitino did not forget. Louisville didn't exactly run the Spartans out of the gym in Phoenix. But the Cardinals ground them up and made them disappear in a 57-44 suffocation.

It was a coaching clinic by one of the best against one of the best (Tom Izzo).

In 1997, Pitino's last Kentucky team won its first two games in Salt Lake City and never went home, going straight to San Jose, where it dominated the regional. Louisville did the same thing this year, winning two games in Portland and then going straight to Phoenix. It gave one of the great coaches in history time to lock in on baskets and the result was total domination. Pitino is now 10-0 in Sweet 16 games at Providence, Kentucky and Louisville.

DEFENSE BEATS DEFENSE

Louisville entered the game with the nation's second-most efficient defense (0.841 points per possession) while Michigan State (0.85) was third. So points were going to be at a premium. The better defense was going to win. That would be Louisville.

The Spartans had more turnovers (15) than baskets (14) and shot just 28.6 percent. Cardinals big man Gorgui Dieng was a monster last line of defense with seven blocks.

The 'Ville won the battle on the glass, 39-36, against a team that routinely kills opponents on the boards. The numbers were mostly a function of great defense. Miss that many shots and it is hard to win any board battles.

THE POWER OF THREE

At the half, Louisville was 1-for-15 on two-point shots and 7-for-15 on threes. That basketball math got the Cardinals the lead and they refused to give it up.

BIGGER BIG

The Big East's 1 (Syracuse) beat the Big Ten's 4 (Wisconsin) and then the Big East's 4 (Louisville) beat the Big Ten's 1 (Michigan State). And this was a "down year" for the Big East, still the best league in America.

It was conference champ vs. champ in Phoenix and Louisville was clearly the better champ.

Ohio State salvaged the night for the Big Ten, overwhelming Cincinnati down the stretch and winning the late game in Boston, 81-66.

By the way, the only conference champs still playing are Louisville and Ohio (Mid-American). Anybody have that exacta with 12 teams left?

BIG FINAL

It will be Syracuse-Ohio State in the East Saturday, No. 1 seed vs. No. 2, power against power, the Final Four for the winner.

SECOND-HALF TURNAROUNDS

Cincinnati had more points (27) in the first 8 { minutes of the second half than in the first half (25). Playing against the nation's most efficient defense (0.847 points per possession), the Bearcats' early 11-for-14 shooting in the half was not going to continue. Ohio State got outscored, 27-11, lost a big lead, then scored 17 of the next 18 points and won with ease. The Buckeyes had 13 steals, six by on-the-ball defensive maestro Aaron Craft.

THE BIG MEN

Does anybody have a better inside (and sometimes outside) offensive combination than the Buckeyes' Jared Sullinger (23 points, 11 rebounds) and Deshaun Thomas (tourney-best 25-point average)?

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