Thursday, January 22, 2009

UConn 89, Villanova 83

So the other night, while watching the DePaul-South Florida game (yes, I was the only one watching -- call me with any questions about the game), I learned something about this year's Big East tournament. I'd already known that all 16 teams would be in it, but it hadn't occurred to me how, exactly, they were going to make that work.

Evidently, the top four seeds will all receive two byes, advancing straight to the quarterfinal round, which begins Thursday of that week. So, if you're one of the top four, you'll only have to win three games in three days to win the conference tournament.

The No. 5 through No. 8 seeds will each receive one bye and won't play until Wednesday. So those teams, if they want to win the conference tournament, will have to win four games in four days -- something that's only been done twice, last year by Pitt and a few years back when Gerry McNamara and Syracuse did it.

The No. 9 through 16 teams will begin play Tuesday and will have to win five games in five days to be conference champs. If that sounds freaking impossible, there's a good reason.

Now, why does this matter? Because that means somebody from the top nine will be in that Tuesday group. At least one of these nine teams:

Notre Dame
West Virginia

If you believe (as I do) that any of the nine teams in that list could conceivably win the conference tournament if all else were equal, this is jarring. It means that at least one of the Big East's "Power Nine" will be all but eliminated from contention for the title before the tournament begins.

If Villanova is that team, they will have some regrets.

They'll regret not making one of those tip-in chances in the final seconds of the Louisville game go in the net. And I believe they'll look back on last night's game at UConn and think they could have won that too.

Villanova is a nightmare to play against. They hassle everything. All through the second half, as it kept looking at if Connecticut was about to pull away, the Wildcats got a hand on every pass, a hand in the face of every shooter, a steal off every dribble that wasn't perfect. They created chance after chance after chance...

...and missed them all. I mean, this was hard to watch. They'd get the steal, block or some other kind of turnover, then they'd take it down the other end and miss a layup. Or miss a dunk. Or make the inconceivably bad decision to try and drive the lane and dunk on Hasheem Thabeet, whose large hand ended that quest emphatically.

(Quick note on Thabeet, by the way. This guy should be better, especially on offense. It looks as if all he wants to do is block shots. Now, he's excellent at blocking shots -- a total game-changer on defense. But he's an uninterested rebounder and a sometimes invisible offensive player. Jay Bilas kept saying that nobody else in the country has a comparable player, and he's right. The dude is 7-foot-3. But that doesn't help you score if you don't care about offense.)

Anyway, Villanova was way game. A.J. Price hitting 700 three-pointers in the first half didn't bother them. Jeff Adrien asserting his I'm-stronger-than-you-are-and-will-own-the-second-half act didn't bother them. The only thing that seemed to upset them was when they got the ball within a few feet of the rim. Why would that be so scary?

Nice escape win for UConn, which is rolling, but I call this a big-time missed chance for Villanova -- and one they might regret come March.

*Red-Hot Redbirds Roll Rutgers: Yes, of course I kept an eye on the Louisville-Rutgers game. Yes, I took note that it was tied at 7-7. Yes, I was impressed that Louisville then scored the next 21 points, enabling its mascot to take a 90-minute nap and its coaching staff to start drawing up plays for Sunday's game at Syracuse.

Look, I still think Louisville has shown some weaknesses this season, and that they could be vulnerable. But right now, they are ON FIRE, as good and as locked-in as any team in the conference and super-confident. If this keeps up, and builds on itself, they'll have a real good chance to take that No. 1 seed into Madison Square Garden in early March.

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