Thursday March 11th, 2010

(Luke Winn/SI)

Arinze Onuaku\'s injury has Syracuse fans worried heading into the NCAA tournament. (AP)

NEW YORK -- Live blogging from Madison Square Garden for the afternoon session of the Big East tournament -- with most recent updates on top:

Marquette 80, Villanova 76, game over: Strange how the last few minutes of this one played out. Crunch time is usually Scottie Reynolds time, but Reynolds' final made shot came wth 4:39 left in the game. He didn't even attempt a shot in any of the Wildcats' last 10 possessions, which is odd for an All-American candidate. When 'Nova was down four with less than 10 seconds to go, the ball went from Corey Fisher, to Corey Stokes (who had the day's hottest hand), to Antonio Pena, who scored in the lane. Reynolds was reduced to being a decoy on the other side of the floor. Even more baffling to me is how Marquette is this good, with so much less talent (or less-hyped talent) than 'Nova. Buzz Williams is really doing a brilliant coaching job this season. Coach OCD needs more recognition.

Villanova Band

(Luke Winn/SI)

Marquette 68, Villanova 67, 3:27 left, second half: I wonder if Blaine Taylor and Tony Shaver, the mustache mavens of the CAA title game, would be jealous of what the Villanova band member at right is wearing. It's not authentic facial hair, but it's still a bold look.

Marquette 65, Villanova 61, 4:40 left, second half: Are Marquette's games against Villanova rigged to come down to the final possession? On Jan. 2 in Milwaukee, the final was 74-72; on Jan. 9 in Phildelphia, the score was 78-76. The Golden Eagles lead by four right now, but we're entering the Scottie Reynolds zone (crunch time), and I suspect it's about to get interesting.

Villanova 52, Marquette 50, 10:10 left, second half: I'm curious to see if Villanova's Corey Stokes an make more threes today than the entire Marquette team. He's 5-of-6 from long range, while the Golden Eagles are 7-of-14. So far Stokes has scored more points (19) than the Wildcats' starting backcourt of Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Reggie Redding combined (they have 15). Stokes is exceptional at hiding out in the corner, on the baseline, at the beginning of 'Nova possessions, and then hunting for open looks on threes after his smaller backcourt mates break down defenses off the dribble.

Villanova 36, Marquette 30, 17:50 left, second half: Villanova was one of the Nike schools that didn't get hooked up with the new Hyper Elite jerseys, which feature mesh graphical sections (called "Aerographics") that reduce jersey weight in the back. I'm sure that's nice, but the backs of the white versions, like Syracuse wore today, just look like they're drenched in a big "U" of sweat. I guess I was supposed to be seeing faint images of the Carrier Dome and the Carnegie Library, but all it looked like was perspiration. 'Nova's standard home whites, while probably a few ounces heavier, are far more visually crisp.

Midway through the first half of Villanova-Marquette, with the Golden Eagles up 25-17: I've missed about 12 minutes of this game, but I felt that the Arinze Onuaku situation was more pressing. I just watched him emerge from the Syracuse training room, on crutches. He didn't speak to reporters, and I didn't think taking a photo right in his face while he looked that depressed was appropriate, so you'll just have to believe me -- he looked depressed. Not like a guy who was in any way certain he'd be playing in the NCAA tournament, or even off crutches in a short period of time.

Syracuse's team physician, Dr. Irving Raphael, made a few comments after finishing treatment on Onuaku. His MRI is scheduled for tomorrow morning in Syracuse, with the focus being on his right knee and the quad tendon above it -- because he tore that same tendon as a freshman and had it surgically repaired. Raphael didn't want to make any guesses as to Onuaku's condition, only saying, "Once we get the MRI, you'll all know the diagnosis." But he did say that re-tearing one's quad tendon would be "unusual," and that Onuaku had played on it without any problem since that surgery.

Onuaku was standing about 100 feet beyond Raphael at that point, waiting for a freight elevator. A Syracuse staff member came up to console him, but it seemed that Onuaku couldn't muster any words in return. He leaned forward on the crutches, and cast a blank stare toward the concrete floor.

Postgame Update No. 2: The worry seems to be less over Onuaku's right knee than the quad tendon above it. For a history of his battles with that injury, read this Syracuse Post-Standard story that Donna Ditota wrote in February:

Onuaku tore his [right] quad tendon his freshman year and had surgery that summer to repair the damage. Last season, SU athletic trainer Brad Pike tried to keep the fraying tendon on Onuaku’s other knee from spoiling his season, but the inescapable damage from games and practices meant that Onuaku played each day with pain.

“Last year, he wasn’t jumping like he does and he definitely wasn’t getting up and down the floor like he could,” Pike said. “A lot of people wanted to criticize him. But his knee was pretty sore.”

The soreness was surgically rectified last year, but the procedure meant that Onuaku had to keep his knee immobilized for stretches of the summer. He couldn’t shoot. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t so much as flex his knee. Pike said a quad tendon injury like Onuaku’s hurts as much as an ACL tear, but requires the patient heal with “more restricted range of motion.”

Postgame Update: Syracuse isn't in the clear on this Arinze Onuaku situation just yet. His mother told me that her son was fine (details on that are below), but coach Jim Boeheim just said in his press conference that Onuaku has a knee strain. "We don't know for sure if it's any more than that," Boeheim said. "We'll find out on Monday. We'll try to find out tomorrow when we go home and get the MRI." This should be a stressful weekend for Orange fans.

Georgetown 91, Syracuse 84, game over: I just rushed up into the Syracuse family section to talk to Arinze Onuaku's mother, Nwaneka, who told me that X-Rays were negative on her son's knee, and that he'd be fine for the NCAA tournament. "He's fine," she said of Arinze. "They need him to rest, that's it."

Syracuse fans, are you relieved? Your team just lost to the Hoyas, but keeping Onuaku for the dance is a huge victory. As I wrote before, his injury did not look good when it occurred with 5:07 left in the second half. He couldn't get up under his own power, and was in a considerable amount of pain. Nwaneka said that when she saw it happen, and doctors were working on her son's knee, "My mind wasn't here. I was really down. I couldn't even raise up my face."

Georgetown 85, Syracuse 81, 51.5 seconds left, second half: How good of a game are we seeing right now? Georgetown is shooting 57.9 percent from the field and Syracuse is shooting 56.4 (including 55.6 from long-range). The only reason the score isn't even is that the Orange have committed 17 turnovers to the Hoyas' 12. Onuaku still hasn't returned to the 'Cuse bench, by the way. But his mother did just come back to her seat, and she's not in tears, so that may be a good sign.

Georgetown 72, Syracuse 66, 5:07 left, second half: On the bad news scale, getting upset by 8th-seeded Georgetown in their first Big East tournament game wouldn't be great for the Orange, but it would hardly be devastating. They're still going to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Losing starting power forward Arinze Onuaku to a season-ending knee-injury, though, would be devastating. The fall he just took under the Georgetown hoop did not look good, and he stayed on the floor for an extended period of time as athletic trainers examined his right knee. The Garden crowd, which seems to be about 70 percent Syracuse fans, went completely silent, and Onuaku never got up under his own power. He hopped into the tunnel with a trainer supporting him under each arm -- and his family members, who had been sitting behind the Orange bench, were soon escorted back there as well. We won't have an update on his condition until later. But I'm worried that the 'Cuse's national title hopes may have just taken a hit.

Georgetown 72, Syracuse 65, 5:23 left, second half: Is Hoyas point guard Chris Wright the ultimate bellwether? I called him that back in mid-January, the last time I saw the Hoyas; they had just lost to Villanova, and were 12-0 when he scored in double-digits, and 1-3 when he didn't. That trend continued: Georgetown is now 18-3 when he's in double-digits, and 3-6 when he doesn't. They're having a killer second half today, having gone on a 19-2 run to take the lead, and guess who's at the center of it? Wright has 26 points, with 13 of them coming in this second half, and he's on pace to have his best Big East game of the entire season.

Georgetown 60, Syracuse 59, 10:33 left, second half: The Hoyas just took their first lead of this half, on a breakaway layup by a guy who didn't play at all in the first 20 minutes, freshman Vee Sanford. Excellent time to show up at the party, Vee. Orange coach Jim Boeheim took a timeout after that bucket, shaking his head as his team headed toward the bench -- and then lighting into Wes Johnson in the team huddle for not getting back on D.


Media cake. (Luke Winn/SI)

Syracuse 57, Georgetown 51, 12:54 left, second half: Taking a break from hoops for a moment, I bring you the most popular item from the media's halftime feeding table: oversized pieces of chocolate cake. The Garden doesn't do a great job of keeping the media healthy; the other options are heat-lamp burgers, hot dogs and assorted fried foods. I'm not brave enough to try to wolf down hot dogs and chocolate cake and then cover a full day of college hoops. I think I'd die midway through game two.

Syracuse 45, Georgetown 44, 17:18 left, second half: The first time I saw Hoyas center Greg Monroe in person this year, he scored 24 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a win over Butler, and there were NBA scouts at that game who still weren't sold on him. Count me as a member of the Greg Monroe Appreciation Society, though: He may not play with a ton of visible fire, but he already has six assists in this game, and is a huge asset in Georgetown's modified Princeton offense. I just watched him receive the ball on the right wing, split a double-team off the dribble, navigate traffic in the lane, and dish to Julian Vaughn for a bucket. How many 6-foot-11 dudes can do that?

A couple of random halftime thoughts:

- Best play so far? Orange forward Kris Joseph's three-quarter-court sprint to stop Chris Wright from getting an easy breakaway dunk with 7:41 left and the 'Cuse up five. Joseph hard a hard landing next to his own cheerleaders, and writhed in pain on the ground under the hoop for about 20 seconds. Wright made both free throws, but Joseph sent a solid message that in this game, there would be no easy baskets.


(Luke Winn/SI)

- I've taken that same picture (that appears above) of the outside of Madison Square Garden on 33rd Street and 8th Avenue for the past three years. And this is the first time it hasn't had a Big East tournament banner on it. Kind of disappointing to see an Absolut ad instead.

Syracuse 40, Georgetown 37, end of first half: There were a total of 103 points scored in the NEC final I covered last night. There were 77 points scored in the first half here, which was refreshing. I needed a good dose of Big East athleticism after three days spent in mid-majordom. The Orange's Wes Johnson (12 points) and Andy Rautins (six points) combined to go 4-of-9 from long-range. They're two of the most devastating wing scorers in the country, and I feel like I'm going to be seeing them in Indianapolis in April. After Kansas, the 'Cuse is the team I'm most confident will be in the Final Four.

Syracuse 36, Georgetown 33, 2:47 left, first half: It only takes about 18 minutes of game time (and 40 minutes of real time) for the alcohol to kick in here. Madison Square Garden is one of the few places you can buy beer at a college hoops event, because it's not a campus venue, and I'm willing to bet that this is the hardest-drinking conference tournament in the country, by far. I'm still trying to wake up here -- I was in Hamden, Conn., at the NEC final until late last night -- and the Georgetown fans to the left are already a few Budweisers deep. When Andy Rautins was just whistled for a cheap foul (and complained about it) right in front of press row, the Hoyas fans stood up and scolded him like a child, saying: "You don't talk to the ref like that!"


Jerrelle Benimon\'s shoes. (Luke Winn/SI)

Syracuse 26, Georgetown 21, 7:41 left, first half: Hoyas forward Jerrelle Benimon is an outlier. Every single player who's seen action so far in this game -- on Georgetown or Syracuse -- is wearing predominantly white shoes, and white socks except for Benimon. He chose the all-black look instead. I'm not sure if it's working out for him, either: He just took a great cross-lane dish from center Greg Monroe, one of the better passing big men in all of college hoops, and proceeded to blow a wide open layup. I can't find anything else to blame but the shoes.

Syracuse 26, Georgetown 21, 8:10 left, first half: Colleague Stewart Mandel challenged my "sleepy" comment about the scene -- he said this has been the most rowdy game so far in the Big East tourney. 'Cuse fans have filled up the place in the last 25 minutes, and everyone seems to be awake now. It's almost as if there's something on the line more than rivalry pride, even though the Orange already have a No. 1 seed locked up. No way the selection committee could deny a No. 1 to a team that won the nation's best league outright, and went 8-1 on the road in conference.

Syracuse 11, Georgetown 9, 14:00 left, first half: I'm not going to be doing constant play-by-play here -- this thing is on ESPN, and that stuff is available everywhere -- but Wes Johnson is already lighting things up for the Orange, with eight early points. Back in November, he had his breakout series here at the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic, scoring 17 against Cal and 25 against North Carolina in back-to-back games. I recall 'Cuse coach Jim Boeheim using the post-game press conference as an opportunity to scold those of us who hadn't believed his preseason claim that Johnson would be one of the best players in the Big East. And I recall feeling kind of bad that I'd left Johnson off my preseason Naismith ballot.

11:45 a.m., 20 minutes before tipoff: I went on a mid-major tour over the past three days: Richmond Coliseum to see Old Dominion lock up an NCAA tournament bid as a 9-11 seed; Indianapolis' Hinkle Fieldhouse to see Butler clinch a 5-6 seed; and Hamden, Conn., to see Robert Morris grab a 16 seed. All of those gyms were rowdy. I'm finally seeing a future No. 1 seed today, Syracuse, and the scene at Madison Square Garden is well ... a bit sleepier. It's the noon game on Big East Thursday, probably the best single day of any conference tournament this year, and fans are still trickling in.

I assume they'll be here in full force by halftime, to join this die-hard with the "Give Me Freeman, Or Give Me Death" sign.

Gtown sing

(Luke Winn/SI)

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