James Southerland getting in foul trouble was not the reason Syracuse lost last night. While his absence may have accelerated the process, the sad truth is that Louisville would have worn down the Orange with or without him.
The game reminded me a lot of the 2009 BET final between these same two teams. So I went back and took a closer look, and the similarities are eerie. That year, SU was the #6 seed while UL was #1. That was, of course, the year of Six Overtimes which was only a quarterfinal game. SU had dispatched Seton Hall in the opening round (sound familiar?!) and then played the epic vs. UConn. That was followed by a single-overtime win against WVU to put them in the finals. Meanwhile, Louisville had an easy quarterfinal win, then pulled away in the second half to win their semifinal by double-digits (again, sound familiar?!) to get to the title game.
SU came out on fire in the first half of that title game, and led at halftime by 8. They shot 53% from the floor, 50% from deep, while UL shot only 27% from deep and 39% overall. Visions of 2006 danced in our heads. But in the second half, the adrenaline wore off and Louisville had the fresh legs. Their defense forced SU into 10 2nd half turnovers and held the Orange to 37% shooting, including 0-8 from deep. The Orange also hurt themselves by shooting 46% from the free throw line in that second half. You could see their legs were finally tired, ruining their long-range shooting form. Meanwhile, the SU defense started to be a step slow, and Louisville got a bunch of open looks and easy shots. The Cardinals shot 61% in the 2nd half and ended up winning by 10.
That history repeated itself last night. SU, when they were able to fuel themselves with emotion, was able to handle the Cards’ defense on one end, and smother the Cards’ offense on the other. But when momentum finally shifted, it shifted in a big way. Tectonic-plate shifting big. SU’s defense got slow and porous, giving Louisville open shot after open shot, or getting caught out of position and sending the Cardinals to the foul line. On offense, SU did not have the mental energy to handle the excessive Louisville pressure, and when they did avoid turnovers and get open jumpers, they missed pretty badly. Lots of line-drive jumpers, which are a sign of tired legs — as are the many missed free throws by normally reliable shooters.
So, whether Southerland had stayed in the game or not, the Louisville run was going to happen. They might have staved it off a while longer, and it might not have been so dramatic of a swing, but I can’t say with any confidence that they would have won if not for that fourth foul. Because I don’t really believe it.
Another thing I don’t really believe, though, was how bad the officiating was. Just terrible. Atrocious. Mind-bogglingly awful. You know how Bruce Bowen would get away with tons of contact just because he had a reputation as an “elite defender”? Well with Louisville it’s like their whole team is Bruce Bowen. Their ‘vaunted’ pressure defense consists mainly of fouling guys over and over again until they lose control of the ball. Reach-ins, chest bumps, hand grabs. Pitino’s “brilliant” strategy is that the refs can’t possibly call all the fouls, so just keep fouling. If they do call it, the worst that happens is a couple free throws. If they don’t (which they won’t, not nearly as often as is deserved) then you get a turnover, and you frustrate your opponent and weaken his mental focus. This certainly contributed to the epic run that UL went on last night.
There are only two remedies to this. One is for the referees to call a proper game. Force Louisville to back off and play within the actual rules — what a shocking concept! But that didn’t happen last night, obviously, and it tends not to happen in a typical Louisville game. (I watched some of the ACC tournament this weekend; the Cardinals are in for a rude awakening when they switch leagues.) The only other solution is to copy what they are doing, try to be just as excessive in your contact, and hope that the officials let you get away with it too. But Syracuse’s defense is built on team positioning and movement, not individual aggression. So that avenue is not really open to them. Or at least not particularly beneficial to them. So they just had to try to fight through it, but because of how worn out they were playing their fourth game in a row, especially after the raw emotion of the semifinal win over Georgetown, they didn’t have enough in the tank to do so.
Quick NCAA seeding prediction: SU’s strength of schedule (#6), RPI (#14), and BPI (#11) suggest they could be a 3 seed, and if they’d won last night that’d be their most likely position. But as things stand today they’ll probably end up a 4. Anything worse than that would be disrespectful. See you after the selection show with some quick analysis.