Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Syracuse loses without Joseph, UConn wins thanks to Walker

You don't see many conferences that can boast two matchups between top-10 teams in one night but last night, the Big East could. With #3 Syracuse traveling to #4 Pittsburgh and #7 Villanova visiting #8 Connecticut, it was a great night for college basketball fans, especially those who love the Big East as much as I do.

Pitt got off to a hot start against the Orange, scoring the game's first 19 points as Syracuse couldn't find any rhythm on offense without Kris Joseph, their leading scorer. The Orange stormed back with 17 unanswered to cut the lead to two but didn't lead all game and were tied just once.

James Southerland started in Joseph's stead, played all but two minutes and only had 8 points while C.J. Fair played 36 minutes off the bench and picked up Joseph's scoring slack with 16 and added 9 rebounds. Fair is the guy I expected to step up most without Joseph and he did, but no Orange player shot over 50 percent from the field and they shot just 39.1 percent as a team.

Southerland was stuck playing power forward most of the night and the Syracuse defense couldn't contain Nasir Robinson (21 points) or Gary McGhee (13 rebounds) down low. The Orange might have missed Joseph more on defense than on offense, as he has yet to turn into the player many expected to take over a heavy scoring burden.

One player who has taken over as one of the nation's top scorers is Connecticut's Kemba Walker. Walker was leading the nation in scoring for much of the season before BYU's Jimmer Fredette scored 47 the other night to take over the scoring lead. Walker has also hit numerous game-winning or game-sealing shots this season and has been the nation's top player in the clutch.

Walker did it again last night, hitting a three-pointer with just over a minute to play to put the Huskies up three. But up 59-57 with 34 seconds left, the 84-percent foul shooter missed two shots and committed a foul on the other end that Corey Fisher turned into two made free throws and a tie game.

Walker got the ball on the final possession, drove into the lane between three Wildcat defenders and pulled up for the game-winner, which hit nothing but twine on its way down. His body control to square himself to the basket in the air after being bumped (read: fouled) by a help defender was impressive, as was his short memory and determination to atone for the previous possession on defense.

I liked Walker a lot last season but he has turned into an absolute superstar this season, increasing his scoring average by over 10 points per game. With only one other player in double figures for the season, Walker has been essentially a one-man team for the Huskies.

I don't know how much longer UConn can continue to win in a difficult Big East with one player but when that player is Walker, anything is possible. This year's Connecticut squad is, to a lesser extent, similar to Syracuse's 2003 team which rode Carmelo Anthony and a bunch of role players to a national title. The Orange had better role players than the Huskies, but with a player like Walker they will be competitive in every tournament game come March.

I'm curious to see how the Big East regular season will play out but one thing I do now is that Pittsburgh, the only team left without a conference loss, does look like the best team right now. Brad Wanamaker is a do-it-all guard surrounded by shooters like leading scorer Ashton Gibbs, competent big men and impressive depth (nine Panthers average over 10 minutes per game).

I still like Syracuse and Villanova more than UConn and I think the Orange are the second-best team in the conference. Hopefully Joseph gets back in time for Saturday's big game at the Carrier Dome against Villanova because the Orange will need to be at full strength to take down the Wildcats.

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