All photography by Marc “Razz” Rasbury
The Big East has been the best conference this year and that is not even up for debate. So when the members got together for their annual post season tournament at Madison Square Garden, most basketball fans were expecting one heck of a ride. Trust me, amidst the splendor, pageantry and partying that took place during the week-long festival, we were treated to some great basketball.
The ninth-seeded Connecticut Huskies won its seventh conference championship by defeating the fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals, 69-66, in a game that was the culmination of a terrific week of basketball.
This tournament had a little bit of everything. You had upsets and controversies, in addition to compelling basketball. Villanova, whom many thought would be a Final Four participant earlier in the season, was bounced in the first round by South Florida, 70-69.
Then, in the second round, all hell broke loose. Three of the League’s best referees collectively experienced brain-lock as they not only appeared to have swallowed their whistles on three very questionable plays during the final minutes of the St John’s-Rutgers game, they also failed to call three blatant violations in the final five seconds of the contest.
In the quarter finals, the ninth, seed UCONN upset, if you want to call it that, the top- seeded, Pittsburgh Panthers, 76-74. St Johns gave Syracuse all it could handle, even without the services of DJ Kennedy, who tore his ACL six minutes into the contest. The ‘Cuse pounded the Red Storm on the boards, as they defeated Steve Lavin’s upstart crew 79-76.
As exciting as the second round was, it failed to match the level of intensity of the semifinal round, when both games were decided in overtime. UCONN beat Syracuse, 76-71. In the night cap, Louisville rallied from 14 points down to overtake Notre Dame, 83-77.
After the smoke cleared, The Big East earned an unprecedented 11 teams to the Big Dance. If one saw what took place at Madison Square Garden this past week, you can understand why.
Folks have complained that the Conference did not deserve that many slots since the brackets were announced. Not only did they have seven to eight teams in the top 25 all season long, they had the best out-of-conference record of any League in the country. St. John’s won the Alaskan Shootout and that was before they caught fire. UCONN took the Maui Classic defeating Kentucky and Michigan State in the process, then they went on the road and beat Texas in Austin. Even Providence, a team that dwelled in the conference cellar, defeated Alabama, 82-72. Now ‘Bama is one of those teams complaining that they missed the cut but they could not even beat one of the conference’s lower echelon teams.
There were stretches this season when certain Big East teams had to play two or three of the top twenty squads in a single week. The schedule was grueling to say the least. One would think that this should prepare the eleven teams for the NCAAs, or it also could be the conference downfall.
Will the teams, especially the ones that went deep into the conference tourney, be spent as they roll through the NCAAs? It might have been a blessing in disguise that Pittsburgh and Villanova were sent home early. They will get a chance to regroup and recharge their batteries for the tourney that really counts. On the other hand, do you think UCONN has anything left in the tank after winning five games in as many days as they captured the Big East Conference Championship?
Kemba Walker put on a performance for the ages as he led the Huskies to the winners circle. He scored 33 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, handed out 6 assists and swiped 5 steals in the semifinal alone. Now he has to garner up the same energy to lead the young Husky Pups to the Final Four in Houston. Remember, most of the Huskies other key players are freshman or sophomores. I’m more worried about them being mentally exhausted than physically tired. But Kemba and the Kids did beat several top 10 teams on the road, so they are battle tested. Freshmen Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier, and Roscoe Smith and sophomore Alex Oriakhi showed that they have Walker’s back. It will be interesting to see how they handle this test.
Louisville and Notre Dame have a chance to advance beyond the Sweet 16. The Cardinals have hit their stride after an injury riddled season. The senior-laden Fighting Irish squad is deep and talented.
Watching the Big East Tournament made me tired so I know that it had to take a toll on the participants. The intensity alone drained me. The conference tournament was like watching a steel cage single elimination match. Whether it is mid January or the first week in March, it was just was another week in the Big East.