Louisville gets chance to leave final stamp

March, 16, 2013
3/16/13
1:18
AM ET
NEW YORK -- This last run of the Big East tournament as we know it has been all about the old teams, the stalwarts from the league’s beginning either moving on or rebuilding the league in its own original image.

Except a funny thing has happened while everyone has been mourning the past and wondering about the future: A young'un from the Big East, a whippersnapper if you will, is taking its share of the last rays of the spotlight.

Louisville, born into the Big East in 2005 and set to expire in 2014, beat Notre Dame 69-57 on Friday night to advance to the Big East tournament final. The Cardinals, the relative newbies, will take on Big East original Syracuse in what, thanks to the twisted world of conference realignment, will be an ACC game in two years.

That makes four appearances in the final game in New York in the past five years for the Cardinals, a run that is rare for anyone in this brutal league and unprecedented among the current nouveau riche of the team roster.

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
Debby Wong/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Siva had 7 steals and 6 assists to go along with his 12 points in Friday's win.
“I honestly don’t know why it is," coach Rick Pitino said. “I know we put a lot of emphasis on it. It means a lot to us, and at this time of the season we allow them to take some chances offensively, to not be conservative. I think that helps. But maybe it’s just because it means a lot."

It’s interesting that it’s Pitino who is orchestrating this new-kid-on-the-block run.

He is seen now as a pillar of the league, but back when, he was just a kid coach trying to prove his worth. This is where he did it, cutting his teeth at Providence. He was a young interloper -- so young that plenty of the coaches he was going up against tried to recruit him. They were the Mount Rushmore of the profession, he the unproven rookie.

Pitino held his own in meetings -- memorably going toe-to-toe with Rollie Massimino in one that still ranks in the story files -- and held his own on the court, too, taking the Friars to the Final Four in 1987.

So in a lot of ways, his team’s run here is a lot like his own. The Cardinals came into the Big East with plenty of name cachet thanks to the history carved by Denny Crum, but they were Southerners crashing the Yankee party, unknown entities who had to prove they could hang in a conference that prided itself on physical play.

And now here they are, playing in their eighth tournament, already trying to win their third title.

By any measure of history, those are pretty good numbers.

Asked what it’s like to "own the tournament," Peyton Siva smiled.

“I hope we own it tomorrow,’’ the Louisville guard said. “Coach really pushes us to bring our game up to a higher level. Throughout the year, we’re still trying to figure out our defenses and our offenses. We work so hard and condition so much that these three days are just like three days of practice. We’re used to it."

For Louisville on Saturday, this game will be about more than just sweet nostalgia. The Cardinals are in position to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament -- with Duke’s loss to Maryland, they might already have locked one up -- but this entire week has been about memory lane and sentiment.

It’s no different for the Cards.

Louisville will be in The Conference To Be Named Later for one more season before jumping ship to the ACC. Its attachment to the Big East isn’t quite as deep as that of the others who are leaving, but the Cardinals nonetheless can leave an indelible mark on the league.

“This is the last Big East tournament game to be played," Pitino said. “Whoever wins, they’re going to be the answer to a trivia question for a long, long time."

Dana O'Neil | email

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