Look, I realize I am going to take a lot of heat for this. But I can’t help myself.
Siena can beat Louisville.
Now, before you invade my inbox with all the reasons I should be tarred, feathered, drawn, and quartered, at least be kind enough to see why I think the small school Saints have a chance against the mighty Cardinals.
The first reason is point guard play. Obviously, Ronald Moore was a huge part of Siena’s first round win over Ohio State on Friday night (as Bill Raftery said, “garden variety ONIONS”). But he was also money in Siena’s first round blowout over Vanderbilt last season as well (11 points, 6 assists and 6 rebounds in that game), and a subpar game from Moore doomed the Saints in the second round last year against Villanova (Moore was dealing with the flare-up of a nagging injury at that time, though).
This year, against Rick Pitino’s pressure match-up defense, it will be up to Moore to stay in control and make the Cardinals pay. Louisville’s defense is based on two principles; (1) on-ball pressure to disrupt and create fatigue and (2) jump-switching to disorient and confuse. Because the ball will be in Moore’s hands, it is his responsibility to pilot Siena’s offense without falling into one of these two traps. At the same time, Moore will also have to attack the Louisville defense and force it to guard the entire court, all 94 feet.
There is no doubt in my mind he is one of the few point guards in the country that can execute exactly this gameplan. Possessing great speed with the rock and an uncanny sense of when to deliver passes to teammates before they are open (but on the verge of becoming so), Moore is the exact kind of guard that gives Rick Pitino teams trouble. Couple him with backcourt-mate Kenny Hasbrouck and you have a lethal pair that is built for an upset of this variety.
The second reason is the versatility of this Siena team. All year, they have been a team that gets up and down the floor, utilizing a mix of full-court pressure and solid man-to-man halfcourt defense to wear down opponents and jump start their offense. Friday night, however, they morphed into a plodding, slow-it-down and punch-you-in-the-mouth team: in other words, they were able to adapt to the situation at hand. This is critical for an upset-ready team. Remember the George Mason team from a few years ago, or Davidson from last year? Both of those teams changed styles of play based on what was needed in any given game to get the win. They did some core things (just as this Siena team does), but they could change their colors to a certain extent as well.
Expect the Saints to take on whatever persona is needed against the Cardinals. They have the right starting five to mix it up (Moore, Hasbrouck, Edwin Ubiles, Alex Franklin, and Ryan Rossiter – this team actually has solid talent at every position), and they have a great swagger as well. When you look at Siena, they scream “balance.” With experience having played teams at Louisville’s level already this season (see their games at Pitt or Kansas), and fore-knowledge of the kind of raised stakes at this point in the tournament (see last year), Siena is the kind of giant-killer that a top seed has to worry about.
The final reason that Siena can defy expectations and take out the tournament’s #1 rated team has a lot more to do with the configuration of Louisville’s team than it does with Siena. Louisville is a team that relies on creating opportunities to score with its defense. If a team is somehow able limit its turnovers and convert a decent (not necessarily an excellent) percentage of its shots, Louisville could experience some problems scoring in the halfcourt. Look back at their early season loss to Western Kentucky–a team that is built very similar to Siena, by the way–and see what happens to Louisville when their defense isn’t brilliant.
Of course, their defense has been brilliant lately. Forcing over 20 turnovers per game in postseason play (Big East and NCAA), Louisville is suffocating on that end of the floor. This is especially the case in the second half, as the constant pressure simply wears on teams. This Siena team, however, has proven it is a second half team as well. At numerous points this year, the Saints have salvaged victory from the jaws of defeat. In fact, they have been a team that counting out has proven to be ill-advised. Check out their comeback wins over St. Joseph’s, Marist, Ohio State, and others. They simply don’t quit. And they won’t against Louisville either.
Siena may end up falling hard against Louisville–but that would shock me. I expect the game to be close. It could, in fact, be the closest of the second round matchups for the #1 seeds. And, if things break right for Siena, they can spring the upset. The three keys:
1.) Ronald Moore controls tempo, turnovers and shot selection
2.) The Saints get production from everyone on the floor throughout the game, preventing the Cardinals from focusing their pressure on just one or two players
3.) Siena forces Louisville to work for points in the halfcourt, challenging shots and controlling the defense glass
If Siena accomplishes none or only one of these keys, they run the risk of getting run out of the gym. If they can do two of the three, the game is a toss-up. All three, and the Saints win the game without a doubt.
The bottom line: I think Siena comes out focused, ready, and hits two of the three keys (I think they will struggle with Key #2). The game is close the whole first half, and Louisville makes their normal halftime adjustments. Siena, however, using their versatility and resilience, manages to weather the Louisville storm, and takes a mid-second half lead. Despite a furious late rally from the Cardinals, the Saints hold on and advance to the Sweet 16. Final score: Siena 73, Louisville 72.
Bring on the heat!