Louisville guards, Syracuse zone could be the deciding factors in Final Four

Syracuse's Trevor Cooney drives past Louisville's Gorgui Dieng Syracuse's Trevor Cooney drives past Louisville's Gorgui Dieng during the first half. (March 16, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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Greg Logan Newsday columnist Greg Logan

Greg Logan is a college sports and boxing writer for Newsday. ...

ARLINGTON, Texas

The Big East is going out with a Big Bang.

All season long, the experts said America's toughest basketball conference was the Big Ten. But the NCAA Tournament selection committee disagreed when it handed out eight bids to the Big East compared to seven for the Big Ten, and then the conference built on basketball flexed its muscles to back up that opinion on the court.

Louisville walloped ACC power Duke, 85-63, Sunday in the Midwest Regional final to join fellow Big East member Syracuse, the East Regional champ, in the Final Four in Atlanta.

One Big Ten team was left standing when Michigan, which tied for fourth in that league, blasted Florida, 79-59, in the South Regional final Sunday. It's appropriate that ninth-seeded Wichita State of the Missouri Valley Conference made it out of the West as the upset special in this unpredictable season.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Shockers manhandled Big Ten Tournament champion Ohio State most of the game Saturday to get to Atlanta, where they will meet Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed and the only conference champion to reach the Final Four. If the 2-3 zone employed by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim remains as effective as it has been throughout the tournament, there's a strong possibility of an all-Big East championship game that would be a rematch of the conference tournament title game.

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If defense wins championships, there's no arguing with the Big East powers. Louisville's press has been dominant as the Cardinals have won 17 of their past 18 games with the only loss coming in five overtimes at Notre Dame.

The big question the Cardinals face is what effect the loss of backup guard Kevin Ware will have. Ware suffered a horrific compound leg fracture Sunday, and his loss leaves starting guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith with very little relief from their ballhandling duties and the energy they expend on defense.

But they survived just fine against Duke, and Smith had another big game with 23 points to continue a run reminiscent of Connecticut's Kemba Walker in 2011. Despite all the trouble No. 1 teams have experienced this season, it's difficult to imagine the Cardinals, who are making their second straight trip to the Final Four, losing to Wichita State.

But the Syracuse-Michigan semifinal is another story. If the Big Ten has a chance to emerge as champion, it lies in the hands of Wolverines sophomore point guard Trey Burke. The race for most outstanding player in the tournament is down to Burke and Louisville's Smith, and really, Burke can hurt you more ways.

Michigan has the most offensive weapons of any Final Four team with a supporting cast of Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary in the post and three-point specialist Nik Stauskas. But Florida coach Billy Donovan on Sunday said their effectiveness "is all a result of Burke. They do not have players who are able to create for themselves."

Boeheim's zone has allowed an average of 45.8 points to four tournament opponents, and Donovan said the Gators had their best moments using a zone against Burke. Michigan coach John Beilein should know what to expect from Syracuse since he previously coached in the Big East at West Virginia.

But Beilein laughed at that notion, saying: "A lot of Big East coaches would agree with me that we don't know what to expect from that Syracuse zone. Coach Boeheim is a master at teaching that. We'll look for as many answers as we can find. But when you get open shots, you need to make them. That will be our plan."

Otherwise, the Final Four will become a last hurrah for the old Big East.

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