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Friday, March 11, 2011
Big East semifinals preview

By Dana O'Neil

NEW YORK -- It is time to offer these Big East semifinals a name for the marquee.

For this New York City nightcap between Connecticut and Syracuse/Louisville and Notre Dame, let’s go with "The Improbables."

Three of these teams aren’t supposed to be here and the fourth was left for dead two months ago.

But in what has been a turbulent, unpredictable and highly entertaining season in this conference, maybe this is how it ought to turn out: improbably.

Connecticut vs. Syracuse

Improbability: High. The Huskies were picked 10th in the preseason, play five freshmen and start three of them. The Orange, meanwhile, may be the only team with the preseason notion of fitting in -- Syracuse was picked third in the Big East and ranked 13th nationally in the preseason -- but their January swoon left many wondering whether the Cuse would reach its potential.

Recent history: In their only meeting in the regular season, Syracuse won 66-58. The Orange remain the only team to hold Kemba Walker under double digits all season. Against the Cuse zone, he shot just 3-of-14 from the floor, 1-of-6 from the arc and finished with eight points.

Players to watch: For UConn, there has been one man to watch all season and that is Walker. The junior added yet another exclamation point to his incredible season with a buzzer-beating winner against Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals Thursday. For Syracuse, keep an eye on Brandon Triche. He has the ability to be the outside threat that the Orange so desperately need and when he’s on, he can spread the defense and open things up for Rick Jackson inside.

What to look for: If Roscoe Smith can play against the Orange -- he participated in the team shootaround and is expected to be available after getting eight stitches from an errant elbow to the head against Pitt -- that helps UConn significantly. The Huskies need Smith and Alex Oriakhi to contain Jackson, who went for 13 points and 13 rebounds in the regular-season matchup. Equally important: How will Connecticut puncture the Cuse zone? The Huskies struggled last time, turning the ball over 14 times and shooting only 36 percent, including 8-of-23 from the arc.


Notre Dame vs. Louisville

Improbability: Off the charts. The Irish lost Luke Harangody, a one-time league player of the year and the central focus of their offense for four years. Notre Dame didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason polls and was tabbed for a seventh spot in the Big East. Louisville was even less likely to be a semifinalist. The Cardinals returned just one starter from a team that lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament and were right behind the Irish in the conference preseason poll, checking in at eighth.

Recent history: Don’t be surprised if you get an extra act here. These two teams have gone to overtime in five of their last nine meetings, including the 89-79 win for Notre Dame this season. The Irish quickly ended the tension in that matchup, scoring the first 14 points in OT.

Players to watch: Ben Hansbrough has brought the life to the Irish party, giving Notre Dame a nasty edge it’s never really had before. He is borderline cocky but the Big East Player of the Year has the numbers to back it up -- he’s shooting a blistering 45 percent from the arc. Louisville’s Preston Knowles is the Cardinals’ most critical player. A more-than-capable scorer, the guard also directs the Louisville offense and has been sensational lately. Since missing a game against DePaul on Feb. 5 with a hamstring injury, Knowles is averaging 4.7 assists per game.

What to look for: Louisville has recently been absolutely stifling defensively. The Cardinals have held five of their last six opponents to under 60 points and opponents are shooting just 33.6 percent from the floor and 20 percent from the arc in the last five games. That last number will be especially interesting against the always hot-shooting Irish. Notre Dame, like Louisville, is great at spacing and finding ways to get clean looks for Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis, so it will be interesting to see which strength wins out here.