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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, February 13, 2012 at 10:31 AM

ESPN did a pretty bad job of guessing this year when setting up their Big Monday schedule. Too much Pittsburgh. Too much Connecticut. Too much Texas A&M. Too much Texas. But, TONIGHT, it's Syracuse at Louisville in a game that has the potential to be one of the best matchups all season in college basketball.

Syracuse is likely to be a #1 seed in the Big Dance, but they've shown some vulnerability in recent outings. Louisville had some early disappointments, which had them barely in the top 25 this past weekend. Yet...the Cards have won six games in a row at the moment, and are playing at a level much higher than their overall poll rankings or computer rankings.

In terms of talent and form, this could be an Elite Eight caliber matchup from a power conference, which makes it a game you should definitely be watching this evening on ESPN.

Let's run through some quick indicator stats to paint a picture of the possibilities. Then, we'll crunch some numbers from the games these two teams played on Saturday...and a couple of other marquee showdowns.

Louisville 11th in the nation
Syracuse: 15th in the nation

It appears to be an ironclad rule that whenever Syracuse is on TV, ESPN is obligated to talk about their amazing zone defense that nobody can ever figure out. And, they have to do that even when opponents have figured it out, or when the other team is hitting three's and knocking them off. That's been more of an issue in past seasons because Syracuse hasn't lost much this year! Please note that Louisville currently grades out better on the defensive end this year when you adjust for tempo and strength of schedule according to Ken Pomeroy's very respected statistical website. This is hidden from the media because Louisville plays at a faster pace than many other teams. They deny baskets within that pace though...and that's been a hallmark of Rick Pitino coached teams for many years now. It would be great if somebody besides us kept mentioning this too you every year.

Syracuse: 6th in the nation
Louisville: 82nd in the nation

This is where Syracuse has enjoyed an advantage this year. ESPN doesn't want to tell you how efficient the Syracuse offense is because it would mess up the annual storyline. But, these guys do a great job of getting points out of possessions. Rick Pitino's supposed to be an offensive-minded know...his NBA teams launched a zillion treys many years ago. Louisville is much worse than most tournament bound threats on the offensive side of the ball this season. But, they have improved in that area during their recent hot streak. Syracuse has the edge here, but probably not by as much as those rankings would suggest.

Louisville 65th in the nation
Syracuse: 159th in the nation

Louisville pushes the ball, while Syracuse is about average nationally. The home team generally forces its tempo on visiting teams. But, you saw on Saturday that Michigan State was able to make Ohio State uncomfortable in a halfcourt wrestling match. Syracuse needs to force a halfcourt game, then rebound when shots miss!

Last week we were talking about how badly Syracuse rebounded in their nailbiter win over Georgetown. Jim Boeheim went ballistic about that...and the team responded well the next time they took the court Saturday against Connecticut. Let's run the numbers from that game, and Louisville's come-from-behind win over West Virginia...

Shooting Pct: Connecticut 44%, Syracuse 59%
Three-Pointers: Connecticut 8/19, Syracuse 10/16
Free Throws: Connecticut 13/21, Syracuse 11/17
Rebounds: Connecticut 24, Syracuse 27
Phantom Score: Connecticut 54, Syracuse 71
Turnovers: Connecticut 14, Syracuse 9
Vegas Line: Syracuse by 10, total of 133
Pomeroy Rank: Connecticut 39, Syracuse 6

Syracuse did win rebounding 27-24, though it was probably their least impressive category accomplishment of the day. It was important though because the team gets into trouble when NOT winning that category. Something near equality is a virtual win. And, it allowed the Orange's edges in everything else to really blow up. Very sharp game for Syracuse with 59% shooting and only 9 turnovers. That's textbook stuff on OFFENSE from a team that's overly hyped on defense. For you newcomers, Phantom Score is a secondary score we invented many years ago to provide added perspective on a game. It's simply two point scoring plus rebounding. Here, the stat confirms the dominance that the scoreboard margin had been suggesting. Strong game for Syracuse heading into tonight's Louisville battle.

Shooting Pct: Louisville 44%, West Virginia 45%
Three-Pointers: Louisville 10/22, West Virginia 7/22
Free Throws: Louisville 13/15, West Virginia 17/27
Rebounds: Louisville 28, West Virginia 36
Phantom Score: Louisville 62, West Virginia 72
Turnovers: Louisville 8, West Virginia 11
Vegas Line: West Virginia by 3, total of 136
Pomeroy Rank: Louisville 23, West Virginia 38

If you were scoreboard watching on this one, you saw West Virginia lead comfortably most of the way...followed by a dramatic late surge from Louisville that put the road dog over the top. It was like Duke-North Carolina last Wednesday. Hopefully you weren't a TV viewer who turned those games off too early! Ultimately, the game came down to a few extra three-pointers and a few less turnovers. We can't call this a great game for Louisville, as they lost Phantom Score by 10 points. They needed those treys to pull off the upset. But, it really was a great last few minutes for a team that may have been caught a bit flat-footed in an early tipoff just two days before the Syracuse game. Note that we currently have Louisville higher than Pomeroy does in our Power Ratings. We're looking forward to tonight's game to see if we have to make any adjustments in that regard.

In other Saturday action...

Shooting Pct: Michigan State 40%, Ohio State 26%
Three-Pointers: Michigan State 4/16, Ohio State 2/15
Free Throws: Michigan State 12/16, Ohio State 18/22
Rebounds: Michigan State 35, Ohio State 32
Phantom Score: Michigan State 69, Ohio State 54
Turnovers: Michigan State 16, Ohio State 15
Vegas Line: Ohio State by 8, total of 131
Pomeroy Rank: Michigan State 4, Ohio State 1

The refs let the kids play...which allowed Michigan State's depth and physicality to intimidate Ohio State's lack of depth and big game shrinkage in a way that made the pointspread cover fairly automatic from the get-go. Ohio State never looked like an eight-point favorite...and rarely even looked like the better team. They couldn't throw the ball in the ocean. They got frustrated easily. They lost rebounding in a way that struck the eye more dramatically than 35-32 would have suggested because it seemed like shorter MSU guys were always climbing over taller OSU guys to get the ball. Great performance from Michigan State, who's much better than their recent poll ratings. We agree with Pomeroy about the Spartans...but not about Ohio State. The Buckeyes are going to have to prove they deserve to be taken seriously in championship terms come March. Their numerous big game failures under this head coach have forced us to become skeptical.

Shooting Pct: Kentucky 48%, Vanderbilt 37%
Three-Pointers: Kentucky 3/14, Vanderbilt 8/21
Free Throws: Kentucky 10/15, Vanderbilt 9/14
Rebounds: Kentucky 33, Vanderbilt 31
Phantom Score: Kentucky 83, Vanderbilt 61
Turnovers: Kentucky 6, Vanderbilt 10
Vegas Line: Kentucky by 5, total of 137
Pomeroy Rank: Kentucky 2, Vanderbilt 30

Tough loss against the Vegas number of you were rooting for the home underdog. This game was tied late, but Vandy didn't score anything in the last few minutes. Kentucky actually missed a few late free throws or this might have been a double digit margin. Note that it was still a Phantom Score blowout, which means a neutral site game between these teams in the SEC tournament would likely go Kentucky's way fairly easily. Vandy had to win three-pointers by 15 points just to be competitive.

In other results of note...#7 Florida was upset at home by Tennessee because injuries took away some of their needed depth. They also seemed to be suffering from a humility hangover after losing so badly to Kentucky earlier in the week. #4 Missouri squashed #6 Baylor in a way that made it seem obvious Baylor isn't really a national threat any more. The Bears are 0-4 vs. Missouri and Kansas, with mostly ugly losses. They're really slumping vs. everyone in recent days. #16 UNLV edged #14 San Diego State in a Mountain West thriller everyone was expecting to be close. #15 Creighton was routed at home by Wichita State in a game that nobody thought would be that one-sided!

JIM HURLEY will have something for you in tonight's Syracuse-Louisville game on this private service ticket. We're also looking at Kansas-Kansas State in the other Big Monday showdown, as well as Miami-Milwaukee, LA Clippers-Dallas, and Minnesota-Orlando in the NBA. Game day releases go up a few hours before tip off seven days a week. If you have any questions about NETWORK'S basketball program, call our office at 1-800-323-4453.

College basketball coverage continues Tuesday in the NOTEBOOK with a look at a couple of darkhorse teams that you must keep on your radar!

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