#1 Syracuse falls to Louisville

With Jerry Smith sidelined, reserve Kyle Kuric got some extra run, and closed Freedom Hall in style. The sophomore scored a career-high 22 points (all in the second half), hitting 9-11 from the field and 4-6 from long range, as the Cardinals beat Syracuse for the sixth straight time, 78-68, in the final game at historic Freedom Hall.

Kuric’s performance was electrifying. Louisivlle was trailing 42-39 with 14:19 to play when Kuric scored his first bucket on a fast break dunk. By the time he scored his 22nd point, Louisville led 77-64 with under a minute to play. During that run, he made four straight threes and several alley-oop dunks.

Louisville won’t have to worry about getting a bid to the NCAA tournament now. They’re 11-7 in conference and 20-11 overall, but two wins against Syracuse will surely earn the Cardinals a bid.

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How does the zone D affect Syracuse’s tourney chances?

In the most recent issue of ESPN The Magazine, Jay Bilas makes a strong argument for the 2-3 zone defense — Jim Boeheim’s zone D, that is. (Insider subscription required.)

So why don’t more coaches follow a strategy that has helped Boeheim win 800-plus games and a national title? It mostly comes down to myths and machismo. For instance, a common perception is that a 2-3 yields open three-pointers, and yet somehow Syracuse has held opponents to 30.6 percent shooting from deep this season, 36th in the nation. “When teams hit a few threes on Bob Knight’s man-to-man, nobody told him to get out of his defense,” Boeheim says. “They just needed to play it better. And if a team is beating our zone, we need to play it better.” Coaches also cite the fact that it’s tougher to rebound out of a zone than with man, but that’s a minor trade-off, especially since those offensive boards tend to be long ones that don’t lead to easy putbacks.

And the machismo? Many coaches believe that if they’re not running man-to-man they’re not coaching at all. They also worry about the blame game. Says UConn associate head coach George Blaney: “Jim Calhoun believes in man-to-man. The reasons are position, strength and that he can hold our defenders accountable.” But Boeheim understands his zone so well that he knows exactly who’s accountable, even if it’s hard for outsiders to see.

Heading into last weekend, I felt pretty good about picking Kentucky and Kansas to meet in the title game, but now I’m not so sure. Kentucky is young and has had mental lapses at times, while Kansas has looked pretty shaky in the few big games I’ve seen. I still think both teams have a terrific shot at the Final Four, but the more I see of Syracuse, the more I like the Orangemen.

I played for Bo Ryan at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and anyone who follows Wisconsin hoops knows that he wouldn’t touch a 2-3 with a ten-foot pole. He won all of those D3 championships with stingy man-to-man defense, and we would always fillet any teams that tried to zone against us, so the idea of sitting in a 2-3 generally doesn’t appeal to me.

But that’s just it — Syracuse doesn’t sit in a zone. They play a matchup 2-3 with man-to-man principles, which means there’s always a man pressuring the ball. It’s tough to prepare for because, no matter what, an opponent’s scout team isn’t going to be able to resemble Syracuse’s zone. It also eliminates about 90% of an opponent’s offensive playbook and reduces the mileage that players cover on defense, so they should have more energy for other parts of the game, like ball pressure, rebounding, and transition defense.

I think the problem with zone is that teams that play it sporadically aren’t very good at it, so the perception is that it’s ineffective. That’s where the rebounding becomes a major issue and shooters are inexplicably left open; players miss their assignments because they aren’t used to playing zone. But teams that play zone all the time — like Syracuse, John Chaney’s Temple squads, early ’90s UNLV — had plenty of athleticism and were extremely difficult to score on. Even Mike Krzyzewski — a devotee to tough man-to-man defense — has played some zone the last couple of seasons after spending time with Jim Boeheim as part of the duo’s Team USA duties.

Whether or not Syracuse makes the Finals may very well depend on their offense, not their defense. This year’s team is leading the Big East in FG% (52%) and is fourth from long range (38%). Their biggest offensive flaw is their inaccuracy at the free throw line (67%), which is worrisome, but not a deal-breaker.

They only have two losses all season. In early January, they lost to Pitt, shooting 1-13 from long range while allowing the Panthers to hit 10-24 from deep. They also lost to Louisville, who has beaten Syracuse five straight times. The two teams meet again on Saturday. If Syracuse can get a win there, and go into the NCAA tournament coming off a Big East Championship, I’m pretty sure they’ll be my pick to win a national title as well.

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#3 Syracuse nips UConn amidst controversy

With the game tied and 0:38 to play, Syracuse attempted a shot and Rick Jackson grabbed the offensive rebound. Sophomore Scoop Jardine got the ball and unwisely attacked the hoop. He didn’t realize that Syracuse could run the clock down. As he was driving, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim called a timeout and the ref actually blew the whistle after the ball left Jardine’s hand.

It could very well have been UConn’s ball, but some leeway needs to be given to the ref. If he saw Boeheim signal for a timeout before the ball left Jardine’s hand, then there is going to be some lag time between that moment and when he blew the whistle and stopped play. Boeheim clearly was signaling for a timeout as Jardine started his drive, so the right call was made.

When Jardine came back to the huddle, even the worst lip-reader could see what Boeheim said to him:

“You know I just saved your a** right there. You don’t know what the f**k you’re doing, do you? You know you almost lost the f**king game for us.”

Boeheim looks like a professor, but curses like a sailor.

UConn stupidly fouled on the inbounds play — Stanley Robinson actually grabbed Wesley Johnson’s jersey right in front of the official — and Syracuse went on to win the game, 73-67.

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TSR’s running diary of March Madness: Let’s play in the Sandbox

These March Madness diaries have turned into something of a tour of the sports bars of Orange County. Last Thursday it was Rudy’s in Newport Beach (still my favorite), yesterday it was the Costa Mesa Hooters, and tonight it’s Sandbox, a relatively new sports bar/lounge on Beach Blvd in Huntington Beach. The setup is nice – but no wifi, so this diary is going up in one fell swoop – with a number of HD flatscreens positioned around the restaurant. At night, it turns into more of a lounge/dance club for the well-dressed. Our server’s name is Jessie and she’s looking sharp in her little black dress. We’ll see if I can get a picture of her for you.

I’m watching the games with LaRusso and his co-worker/buddy Kevin, who is from Foxboro, so he’s a big Patriots, Celtics and Red Sox fan. We got into a minor spat last year over whether or not the Celtics would have beat the Lakers had Andrew Bynum been healthy – he thought a Boston win would have been a sure thing while I thought it would have thrown the series on its ear, but we’re way past that now.

5:14 PM: Louisville is spanking Arizona (not a huge surprise) and Oklahoma is up eight or ten on Syracuse (a bit of a surprise). I think the Orangemen have a shot at pulling this one out, though it’s not looking particularly good right now.

5:20 PM: What is the deal with these Howie Long commercials where he mocks anyone who has a truck that’s not a Chevy? This probably brings back memories of high school for Howie. Is there any chance that he wasn’t stuffing freshman in lockers on a regular basis? He reminds me of a meaner “Big John” from “Can’t Buy Me Love.” He was the one who stuck his butt out the window of a house party and farted in the face of a young Seth Green. For those that haven’t seen the flick, it’s one of my favorites from the ’80s — McDreamy plays a McLoser who pays a girl to date him so he can be popular. Hilarity (and surprisingly touching social commentary) ensues. Anyway, I’m waiting for one of these guys in these commercials to tell Howie to go f*ck himself. Do we really need a washed up NFLer mocking a fellow truck owner because it has a convenient “man step” or gets two fewer miles to the gallon? Give me a break.

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March Madness News & Notes: Sunday

48 games over four days is going to produce some drama, and Sunday’s action was no different…

– #1 seed Pitt gave another scare to those that had the Panthers going to the Final Four (or in my case, all the way to a title) with a less than stellar effort against Oklahoma State. They continue to underwhelm, but they’ve been getting the job done in crunch time. They’re not going to be able to phone in a win against Xavier next week, however, so they better bring their “A” game.

– Syracuse continues its hot run that started in the Big East tournament. Arizona State pushed them a bit in the second half but the Orangemen were able to limit James Harden by utilizing their patented zone defense. I like Harden, but he has a tendency to disappear at times. There were long stretches over the two tournament games where he faded into the background.

– Dayton pushed Kansas for a while, but the Jayhawks were able to pull away in the second half. Cole Aldrich had an unlikely triple-double — 13 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks — to lead the way for Kansas. The Jayhawks have a nice inside-outside game with Aldrich and point guard Sherron Collins (25 points, seven rebounds).

– Arizona ended #13-seed Cleveland State’s Cinderella run, but in a way, the Wildcats have been fitted with their own glass slipper. It will be interesting to see how Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Co. can fare against Louisville next week. Everyone knew that Arizona was capable of winning a couple of games in the tourney, but they’ll really be tested against the Cardinals.

– Tough finish for Marquette, who had a chance to tie (or win the game with a three) when Lazar Hayward stepped on the end line when trying to inbound the ball. In his defense, the inbounds play wasn’t drawn out very well, so the guy he was thinking about throwing the ball too was “kind of” open. Anytime you put a player in a position of indecisiveness, bad things can happen. Hayward had a nice game (13 points, 12 rebounds), so the Golden Eagles wouldn’t have even been in that position without him. Down four, Marquette head coach Buzz Williams wanted a foul on Maurice Acker’s three-point attempt, but there wasn’t much contact there and Acker was the one who created it. Williams was acting like a petulant child on the sideline down the stretch. Basketball is the only sport where a grown man can throw a two-hour tantrum and get away with it.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for a complete preview of the Sweet Sixteen.

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