Sunday, January 18, 2009

Saturday Night Recap -- Cards and Eagles Flying High

The only two undefeated teams left in Big East play are Louisville and Marquette, and man did they earn it.

The angle on this one seems to be that Louisville outlasted Pitt physically, wearing down the nation's No. 1 team with its relentless press and handing the Panthers their first loss of the season. It's a viable take that jives with what we saw Louisville do to Notre Dame, but there has to be a caveat. DeJuan Blair missed half the game due to foul trouble. During the brief times in the second half when he was on the floor, Pitt looked like a totally different team. And had he been able to play more, Pitt probably would have looked like the better team. Playing without Blair is like trying to drive a truck through three feet of snow without a plow. Louisville's pressure is the snow, and it's tough to fight through. And if you're trying it without your plow, you have no chance.

But those are the ifs, and these are the facts: Louisville keeps winning, and when they play a focused, intense game, they're as good as anybody in the conference. Their point guard play is shaky, and there are still too many mistakes. I mean, the whole final minute was a mess -- dumb fouls and turnovers that kept Pitt in the game when it could have been salted away. This happened against Kentucky and Villanova, too -- maddeningly sloppy play by a team that should be a better closer. But they won those games too. And if they can keep winning, gaining confidence and growing as they win, they'll be in pretty good shape come postseason time. What we know about them already is that it's real tough to run with them for 40 minutes.

So that's the Pitt-Louisville game, and then there's Marquette-Providence, a bizarre late night show up in Rhode Island in which the underdog home team blew 13-point second-half lead and lost by nine and the brother of an injured Providence player wandered onto the court during a free throw to talk to the officials about a call.

(Yeah, if you didn't see it, it looked as weird as it sounds. Jeff Xavier is the Providence player, and he takes an elbow in the eye. Starts bleeding like crazy. Leaves the court, very upset, and doesn't return to the game. Ugly. Worst part is, no foul was called on that play. A foul was called seconds later, and while they were lined up and getting ready to shoot it, Jonathan Xavier, Jeff's brother, wanders out onto the court in a big old winter coat and confronts one of the officials. All of a sudden people realize what's happening, and a couple of people start rushing the guy off the court. Scary, really.)

In terms of the game, Providence looked heartbroken at the end, and they should have. This was their game, totally, and they let it slip away. Of course it didn't help that Lazar Hayward started bombing threes, but just because that happened didn't mean Providence had to take itself out of its own game on the other end and start rushing perimeter shots too. It didn't mean they had to start turning the ball over as if they were giving out Toys for Tots. And it didn't mean they had to chunk every single free throw in the final five minutes.

Providence is an experienced, senior-heavy team with a size advantage over Marquette, so it was weird to see them fall apart like that. But Marquette is also an experienced, senior-heavy team, and they're much better than Providence, so I guess it should have been a big surprise to see them assert that.

I count this as a big win for Marquette. It was on the road against a team that's probably the best of that "bottom seven" group and had a 13-point lead on them with less than 15 minutes to go. Right now, everyone still wants to say Pitt and UConn are the best two teams in the conference, but Marquette's done nothing wrong. Sure, they haven't played as tough a schedule as some have. And yes, I imagine they will run into problems dealing with the interior size of teams like Pitt, UConn, Louisville and Syracuse. But if they can stretch out defenses with their outside shooting, they'll be able to (a) stay in those games and (b) run their offense around the trees.

Their schedule will get tough, eventually. I mean, they have DePaul twice in their next four games, which really shouldn't be allowed. And they still have South Florida, St. John's and Seton Hall to come. But their final five games are at Georgetown/UConn/at Louisville/at Pitt/Syracuse. So we'll get to find out for sure whether they really are this good. But after last night, I think we have less reason to doubt it.

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