One day prior to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Sunday, two top-25 teams will square off at center court in New York’s Madison Square Garden. This year’s Big East Tournament has been three days of upsets, poor officiating and a semifinal round that saw both games go to overtime—and saw both the higher seeds lose.
On one side of the matchup stands Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies. Fresh off their fourth straight win in the tournament, they are the only team to reach the semifinals from outside of the quarterfinal round.
Walker has been all but guaranteed the tournament MVP honors after notching 33 more points in Friday’s matchup against the No. 4 seeded, No. 11 nationally ranked Syracuse Orange. That performance brings his tournament total to 111 points, averaging nearly 28 per game in the tournament.
When asked about his star guard after the game, UConn coach Jim Calhoun was clearly happy with his performance. “He is the one most valuable player in the United States. I think he’s the most valuable player of any college team in America, and I’m going to keep saying it.”
UConn started the tournament seeded No. 9, even though they are ranked 21st in the nation as the Big East continues to flex its muscles of NCAAB dominance. The Huskies have been matched up against higher seeded teams throughout the tournament and Saturday night’s 9:00 EST matchup on ESPN will be no exception.
On the flip side, No. 14 ranked Louisville was given first and second round byes due to its No. 3 seed in the tournament—just behind No. 4 Notre Dame, whom they defeated Friday night in the semifinals 83-77 in OT.
The Cardinals have played fairly consistent ball all season. They have never lost back-to-back games and with their worst stint involved a period where they lost three of five, all against division rivals.
Not surprisingly, in each of those three losses their captain Preston Knowles scored no higher than 13 points, which is only one point short of his season average but well below his average of 17.5 points in his last four games, including 20 in Friday’s win over the Fighting Irish.
The Cardinals went into halftime down by 14, but head coach Rick Pitino rallied the troops in the locker room. “In the second half, I said, ‘You guys got one shot at winning this game, you have to take their legs from under them, and it’ll pay off at the end,’” Pitino said.
It certainly did, as Louisville outscored the Irish 40-26 in the second half and 11-5 in OT to win a spot in the finals, denying Notre Dame their first shot trip to the Big East Tournament Finals in school history.
Going into Saturday’s matchup, there are concerns facing both sides. Since Louisville lacks a key star player who consistently scores more than 20 points a game, their starters and bench players need to be firing on all cylinders to keep their 75.6 PPG offense rolling to their second Big East title in three years.
The Huskies, on the other hand, have that marquee player in Kemba Walker, who has averaged 23.7 PPG throughout the season and is shooting over 43 percent from the floor. However, UConn has now played four games in four consecutive days and with everyone’s eyes on next week’s opening round of March Madness, their energy and focus levels may be lacking.
In the end, the momentum UConn has been riding into this game on the back of Walker will likely prove too strong for the selfless, everyone-contributes style of play from Louisville in what will be a very close game in Madison Square Garden.
Even with Walker looking to score nearly 30 points, this game will go down to the wire, but expect UConn to raise the trophy and solidify their bid for a high-mid seed in this year’s field of 68 teams looking to take the crown as national champs.
Prediction: UConn 77 – Louisville 74
Quotes and stats in this article are courtesy of ESPN.com and BostonHerald.com.