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Set Your Seasons To Phase Three

To win at all costs or to rest as much as possible?

A real question this week for teams locked into high seeds for the NCAA tournament. No team is going to tank a game, much less a conference tournament, but maybe some coaches hold back a little now in order to prepare for what's next. It's the Lute Olson approach a lot of coaches take during conference tourney time. Try without really trying.

Back when I hosted my radio show (which centered in on all things SU) every March I would ask listeners to flip that thought. Would they rather have SU win the Big East tourney or take your chances in the NCAA tournament. Meaning, if you knew SU was not good enough to win it all (like about 59 of the teams heading to the Big Dance this year), would you rather have them win in NYC and get bounced early the following week? It's tough to admit that your team really isn't going to win it, but sometimes the truth hurts. So, in those years, would you pick a Big East title over just a couple of NCAA tourney wins?

When the Orange are destined to be a 4 or 5 seed, or worse, would you take being outed early for the chance at the championship in the Garden? Ignoring 2005 and Vermont, let's look at '06. Gerry McNamara's crazy run was amazing, and remember that SU team was certainly not good enough to win it all. In fact, had they lost that Wednesday against Cincinnati, it would have been off to the NIT for McNamara and the Orange. I hated losing Texas A&M in Florida the next week in the NCAA's first round, but good God do I remember winning those games at the Garden more than I remember Acie Law and A&M (the fact that the Aggies were a 12 seed that year still gets me so mad I could punch your cat). I would sacrifice an early exit in the NCAAs to win the Big East that season.

This year is obvious, screw NYC we're going to New Orleans. The question flips, getting back to the 'rest or go all out' debate. Should Jim Boeheim pull back a little this week knowing that a Big East tourney run may (only three games in three days isn't crazy, I know) hurt a run at the title in New Orleans?

Knowing that this Orange team has a bigger collective goal in mind, I want to see them cutting down the nets Saturday night. With this season being so fun to watch (30-1, are you serious?), a loss this week would probably be a bigger let down than it should be. If an L does come in the Garden, just remember the team that actually takes the Big East probably doesn't have a real shot at beating Kentucky, Ohio State, North Carolina, or Missouri. Syracuse does. With that, here's the possibilities ahead for the Orange:

DePaul Blue Demons (18 seed 12-18, 3-15)

  • Chances of Making It to Thursday - What's less than zero? Negative zero? DePaul plays Connecticut Tuesday (Noon, ESPN2).
  • Key Player(s) - Cleveland Melvin - (17.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg) - Although the 6 foot 8 sophomore can't shoot from distance (22.4% from three), Martin could be a reason why the Blue Demons eventually get back to respectability (well, at least get back to the NIT). Martin's had three double-doubles in the last four games to boot.
  • Outlook - Besides a blow out loss to West Virginia, the last three weeks Oliver Purnell's group has been quite fesity. That includes rocking Seton Hall last weekend. In fact, the Demons have a real strength on offense. Purnell's team finished third in overall scoring (74.4 ppg) in the Big East. Does that mean DePaul could beat both Connecticut and West Virginia to get to Syracuse? No. Especially with the Blue Demons losing nine (close) straight games before pasting the Pirates. Still, the future could actually be bright(ish) in Chicago. The future meaning not this week.

Connecticut Huskies (9 seed 18-12, 8-10)

  • Chances of Making it to Thursday - 65%. Need I remind you of last year? Connecticut plays DePaul Tuesday (Noon, ESPN2).
  • Key Player(s) - Jeremy Lamb (17.6 ppg) - Andre Drummond (7.8 rpg) - Despite being on the 'bubble' the Huskies are actually loaded with talent. Talent that's likely to be gone after this season, meaning it's an all or nothing situation for this team. If Drummond plays to potential in the paint and Lamb plays and leads like he can, the Huskies could make another five day run in the Garden. At the least, if UConn gets to Thursday, a win over the Orange would probably be enough to lock the Huskies into the Big Dance.
  • Outlook - Having played the Huskies two times in February, the Orange know this Huskies team very well. Connecticut played the Orange tough at the Dome before a late game run by Syracuse blew it open. The opposite happened in Storrs as SU opened strong before holding on late. Honestly, in this amazing run for the Orange, it would be awesome to beat Connecticut three times in one season. Despite the long odds of the Huskies making another Garden run, I can't help but to think Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim will get in at least one more game against each other.

West Virginia Mountaineers (8 seed 18-12, 9-9)

  • Chances Of Making it to Thursday - 85% - One win over a team that played the day before is all it will take.
  • Key Player(s) - Kevin Jones (20 ppg, 11.2 rpg) - Darryl 'Truck' Bryant still plays for Bob Huggins. (I'm pretty sure Bryant was roommates with Major Harris) Although approaching 45 years old (estimate) Truck is a leader on the court who has been through it all, deserving mention here. Jones, however, is the reason West Virginia is even on the bubble. Leading the conference in both scoring and rebounding, if the 'Eers make the tourney, it'll be in large part due to the senior from Mount Vernon, NY and confidant of one Mookie Jones - no relation.
  • Outlook - The Mountaineers are on the bubble and every win is a must. Meaning, I like West Virginia's chances against either Connecticut or DePaul. As an SU fan, I fear them in Thursday's quarters. Need I remind you of the two team's only game against each other this season? Outside of your Syracuses, Marquettes, and Georgetowns, this 'Eers team may be the one sleeper nobody is talking about this week.

I think it's likely the Orange will get that rematch with West Virginia in the quarters. After that, a date with either (5)Georgetown or (4) Cincinnati probably awaits (Friday, 7 p.m. ESPN). Actually, look at the draw for Syracuse. It seems all about playing teams that think they should have already beaten the Orange. West Virginia (goaltending call), Georgetown (some questionable calls in an OT loss at the Dome), and Marquette (huge comeback that fell just short at the Dome) all have reason to believe they could have beaten the No. 2 team in the country.

Which leads me back to my question. Would you give up a couple games in the NCAA tourney to win in the Garden? Personally, if the Orange gets beat by a team consumed by revenge and fighting for it's NCAA life this week, tough to watch sure but oh well. The Bayou is calling and Syracuse has much bigger crayfish to fry.