The last time the No. 4-seeded Syracuse Orange and No. 9 Connecticut Huskies met in the Big East Tournament history was made. On Friday night, in the semifinals of the 2011 Big East Tournament (7 p.m. on ESPN) at Madison Square Garden, the Orange (No. 11 in both college basketball polls) will try to stop a possible run at history.
The Huskies (No. 21 in the AP poll and No. 19 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll) have won three games in three days, including a 76-74, buzzer-beating victory over top-seeded Pittsburgh Panthers Thursday in the quarterfinals, to reach the semis. A victory Friday would tie the record of four consecutive victories in the Big East Tournament, which was set by the 2006 Syracuse squad that knocked off Cincinnati, UConn, Georgetown and Pitt en route to its fifth title.
In 2006, the Big East allowed only the top-12 teams to play in the tournament, but in 2009 the league changed its postseason format to a five-round, 16-team bracket with the top-four seeds earn a double-bye, the next four get a single-bye, while the reaming eight play a first-round game. This season, UConn (24-9) earned a nine seed and no bye, setting up a possible five wins in five days scenario that would smash on of the most treasured Syracuse basketball accomplishments.
But that task will not be easy. First, the Huskies need to beat Syracuse (26-6), which currently owns a three-game winning streak against UConn, and then defeat either No. 2 Notre Dame or No. 3 Louisville Cardinals, who play each other in the second semifinal contest (9 p.m. on ESPN) and both have beaten the Huskies twice this season.
Luckily for UConn fans, they have a player, junior guard Kemba Walker, that is talented enough to single-handedly pull off the impossible. At the beginning of the year, Walker netted 30, 31 and 29 points in a three-da run at the Maui Invitational, Nov. 22-24. UConn won the tournament after defeating the then No. 9-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, 84-67. In three games of the Big East Tournament, Walker has scored 26, 28 and 24 points. A 30-plus performance will probably be needed Friday night if the Huskies want to continue their journey towards history.
For Syracuse, another victory over a Big East rival would set a positive tone heading into the NCAA Tournament. On Thursday, the Orange retained their squatters rights of MSG by defeating the No. 5 St. John's Red Storm, 79-73. Sophomore guard Brandon Triche scored a team-best 22 points, while freshman center Fab Melo put together a collegiate-best performance of 12 points, four rebounds and two blocks. If Melo's positive showing wasn't just a one-game fluke -- Melo averaged less than 2.5 point per game before Thursday, than SU has just added another weapon to help out senior forward Rick Jackson.
Jackson, who has been the most consistent player for the Orange this year, put together a stat-stuffing performance of 10 points, nine rebounds, four blocks, three steals and three assists on Thursday. On Feb. 2, against UConn, the 6-foot-9 big-man tallied 13 points and 13 rebounds in a 66-58 victory.
As for NCAA Tournament-seeding implications, the Orange are basically a lock for a No. 3 seed. However, a Big East finals appearance could move up SU to a No. 2 spot. UConn is a strong No. 4-seed, but another victory might push them into the No. 3 column.