Rick Pitino's scorching-hot Louisville Cardinals will be gunning for their second consecutive Big East Tournament title and third in five years on Saturday night in New York City.
Standing in their way, Jim Boeheim's Syracuse Orange, which has knocked off top seeds Pitt and Georgetown en route to this weekend's championship showdown at Madison Square Garden. The two programs last faced at this stage of the Big East Tournament in 2009, with the Cardinals coming away with a 10-point win.
With tipoff on the horizon, let's highlight the players who must deliver in order for their teams to earn the right to cut down the nets at MSG on Saturday.
C.J. Fair, Syracuse
C.J. Fair has made tremendous strides in his junior season with the Orange, and can help Syracuse improve its seed for the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night with another big-time performance.
Fair is averaging just 11.7 points per game for the Big East Tournament, but his ability to rebound and hustle on the defensive end of the court will be vital for Syracuse against Louisville. He has 20 total rebounds through three games in New York and has made a few clutch plays that don't show up in the box score.
This monster dunk from Fair on Friday shows up as only two points in the box score but it's impact can't be measured (via @BrentAxeMedia):
Brent Axe @BrentAxeMedia
C.J. Fair's dunk that will now live as a top Syracuse-Georgetown moment. http://t.co/APh06B3nNG3/16/2013, 2:44:31 AM
The 6'8" forward led the Orange with 19 points on 9-of-20 shooting in Syracuse's home loss to the Cardinals two weeks ago. Fair does't need to score 20 points for the Orange to hoist the trophy on Saturday, but he does need to continue to make his presence felt on the glass and on the defensive end, where the officials will be letting the players decide the game.
Russ Smith, Louisville
If Louisville is going to head into the Big Dance as Big East Tournament champion and on a 10-game winning streak this March, junior guard Russ Smith will have to deliver.
Smith is the Cardinals' leading scorer by a landslide this season, averaging over 18 points per game for a team that reached the Final Four a season ago. Although Smith can be an inconsistent shooter at times, he's reliable at the free throw line (83 percent) and exceptional on the defensive end where he averages a shade over two steals per game.
The Brooklyn, N.Y. native dropped 18 points and five assists on Syracuse in the two teams' matchup at the Carrier Dome two weeks ago. A similar performance this weekend would have Louisville smiling and streaking into Selection Sunday.
James Southerland, Syracuse
Senior forward James Southerland must be at his best on Saturday night in New York if Syracuse is going to take home its first Big East Tournament title since 2006.
Southerland's leadership and scoring will be key for Jim Boeheim's Orange. He's averaging just 14.1 points per game this season but 17.7 at Madison Square Garden this March. But more impressive than Southerland's 53 points in three Big East Tournament wins is his 16 made 3-pointers over the course of those three victories.
Keep an eye on the 6'8" Southerland when he steps beyond the arc on Saturday as he's hitting 64 percent of his shots from downtown for the tournament.
If Southerland is knocking down shots and stretching Louisville's defense, he'll open up opportunities offensively for others and be a favorite to take home tournament MVP honors.
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