East Reset: Big Ten-Big East face off as 'Cuse looks for trip to NOLA
Four teams enter, two from each league, two survive. There are two combinations of results that will give us a regular-season rubber match in the regional final to settle things in a series where there were no home wins. Wisconsin and Ohio State each won the away game during the regular season; Syracuse won at Cincinnati and then lost to the Bearcats at Madison Square Garden in the Big East tournament. This will be a microcosm of the bigger NCAA tournament picture, where each league has four teams remaining and there's a third league-vs.-league Sweet 16 matchup on tap (Michigan State-Louisville). Or, if seed form holds, we could have a colossal Syracuse-Ohio State regional final pitting two of the nation's four most talented teams for the right to head to New Orleans.
Even with No. 6-seed Cincinnati in the foursome, No. 4-seed Wisconsin feels like the outsider in terms of perceived talent and headline-making prowess. The Badgers also draw Syracuse, the best team in the regional over the course of the entire season, although that matchup may not be bad for the Badgers. They should be able to force the Orange into a stodgy, halfcourt game, as they don't turn the ball over much at all. They also take over 41 percent of their shots from three-point range, so having to shoot a ton of them over Cuse's zone isn't a deviation from style preference. That said, they still might not be able to handle Syracuse's depth and variety of offensive weapons in front of what should be a pro-Cuse crowd.
Jim Boeheim, Bo Ryan and Thad Matta are three of the college game's elite coaches. They also have some suspect NCAA tournament history on their resumes. Since the 1989-90 season, Syracuse has been to the Sweet 16 nine times and lost that game on seven of those occasions, including in 2009 and 2010. Matta's making his third straight trip to the Sweet 16, having lost as a 1- and 2-seed at this stage the last two seasons. Ryan gets yet another shot at a higher seed, a spot where his Badgers usually meet their match in the NCAAs. At least one, and maybe two, of these coaches will have a bit of a monkey off his back come Friday, and at least one will have another missed opportunity to ponder.
You can't stop every Ohio State threat, and most teams don't have the frontcourt size and quality to handle both Jared Sullinger and Thomas. Thomas has had 49 points in two NCAA games thus far and has scored at least 18 in eight of his last 10 games overall. He could be a huge matchup problem for Cincinnati.
First, there's the geographic hook, with both schools being among the four Ohio schools to make the Sweet 16. There's also a huge historical hook, as the Bearcats defeated the Buckeyes in both the 1961 and '62 finals to win their two national titles. Then throw in that Cincinnati has the bulky big to bother Jared Sullinger and quick, competitive guards to test Aaron Craft and Co. Then there's the lingering memories of the #ZipEmUp brawl with Xavier, with many media folks (including myself) calling for a season-long suspension for Yancy Gates. There's a lot to chew on.
You never know when you'll have another opportunity for a Final Four or more, especially when you have been one of the two best teams in the nation all season. You don't know how much longer Jim Boeheim will be around. You have a lengthy legacy of tripping up at this Sweet 16 hurdle. This is the moment for the Orange to seize. They were in a similar spot in 2010 and fell to Butler. They should have solid crowd support in Boston, unlike this past weekend in Pittsburgh. They have delivered all season in the face of outside scrutiny and adversity. Time to get 'er done and make it to New Orleans.
That's Wisconsin's adjusted number of possessions per game this season (per KenPom.com), which makes the Badgers the second-slowest team in Division I. With two other teams in the regional (Syracuse and Cincinnati) also outside the top 200 in tempo, this could be an exceedingly deliberate regional. If the final is Cincinnati-Wisconsin, they might as well just play halfcourt, winner takes all.
It won't be easy. The Orange will be tested two more times, just like they have been in almost every outing the last month of the season. In the end, there's just too much talent here -- even without Fab Melo -- and more importantly, too much resilience. The Orange have been the hunted all season and haven't buckled. Two wins away from New Orleans, this isn't the spot where it happens.