Commentary

Cardinals win Big East title outright

Originally Published: March 7, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Rick Pitino had the calls made to every player's room that it was time to get to the lobby and board the bus for practice.

Rick Pitino
AP Photo/Don Wright)Rick Pitino and Louisville should be OK on the recruiting trail.
But there was still five minutes left in the Pitt-Connecticut game. The players weren't leaving.

Seniors Terrence Williams and Andre McGee roomed together and the team's captains weren't about to turn off the television. They needed to see if Pitt could hold on to its lead against UConn, giving the Cardinals the chance to win the Big East regular-season title outright as well as the top seed in the upcoming Big East tournament with a win over West Virginia later that night.

"Once [Pitt's] Sam Young scored again, got a steal and it looked over, everybody started jumping up and down, everybody started calling each other champs already," Williams said.

The euphoria carried into the elevator.

"We were all yelling," McGee said.

Pitino didn't mind holding up practice. He knew how special it would be for Louisville to get the outright title.

"They didn't mind sharing it but to win this conference, at the toughest time since the inception is quite special," Pitino said. "They kept hearing how Pitt and Connecticut would be a No. 1 seed and yet we won the Big East."

And why shouldn't they celebrate? Louisville capped off a grueling 18-game schedule by beating West Virginia 62-59 with the iconic NBA logo in the building (i.e. Jerry West). Louisville stands alone atop the Big East at 16-2, one game better than Pitt and Connecticut, which both finished 15-3. It's easy to pick apart the Cardinals and say they didn't have to play at Pitt, Connecticut or Marquette this season, while Pitt and Connecticut played each other twice. UConn won at Louisville while Pitt lost at Freedom Hall. But Pitino answered that kind of chatter by pointing out that the Cards won at Villanova, Syracuse and West Virginia.

The odd thing is that the NCAA tournament could conceivably choose all four No. 1 seeds that aren't seeded No. 1 in their respective conference tournaments: Pitt got the No. 2 seed in the Big East. Oklahoma didn't get the No. 1 seed in the Big 12 -- Kansas did. Connecticut will be the No. 3 seed in the Big East tournament. North Carolina could be the No. 2 seed if it loses to Duke and Wake Forest beats Clemson on Sunday.

"Right now we're No. 1," Pitino said of the Cardinals' NCAA seeding. "If we lose once in the Big East [tournament] in the first game we could be two. We're Big East champions and they should honor the Big East champ, especially since we did it on the road. If you're going to pick one Big East team [it should be Louisville]. I'm not lobbying about it nor do I care about it."

The Cardinals' rise to the top is really something considering they struggled early in losses to the Sun Belt's Western Kentucky (in Nashville, Tenn.) as well as to possible NCAA teams Minnesota (in Arizona) and UNLV (at home). This is also the same team that got hammered by 33 last month at Notre Dame. That didn't matter. Pitino said he learned in the NBA that the margin of defeat, or even a few losses, shouldn't get you down. It didn't with this squad. They handled the handful of losses well.

Still, to win the Big East with only two losses was unfathomable. Williams said Pitino told his team a 12-6 record in this league would mean they played well.

"I thought if we went 12-6, we would have a really good year," Pitino said. "I don't think we ever got down about losing. We knew it would be a long, long marathon and I expected to lose four or five games."

Terrence Williams
AP Photo/Don WrightTerrence Williams turned in yet another well-rounded performance, with 20 points, six rebounds, seven assists and six steals.
Pitino said for whatever reason, his teams just don't play well in November and December. That's been the case the past two seasons, and he said it was true even when the Cardinals went to the Final Four in 2005 out of Conference USA. But they have played well at the right time and he and the rest of the players feel even better about the way they're defending going into the postseason than they did a year ago, when they landed in the Elite Eight. A lot of that has to do with the development of Williams. He has every right to challenge Pitt's DeJuan Blair and Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet for Big East Player of the Year. He finished off West Virginia with 20 points, making 5-of-6 3s and picking off six steals.

"He was a freak athlete when he came here but now his basketball skills have caught up to his athleticism and he's become quite a basketball player," Pitino said.

For some odd reason, voting for Big East Player of the Year was due Friday, before the final games Saturday. Yes, before Pitt-Connecticut and Louisville-West Virginia.

"If you say, 'Who is the most valuable player in the league?' it's Terrence Williams for what he does for this basketball team," Pitino said. "Who is the best passer? Terrence Williams. Who is the best rebounder? Terrence Williams. Who is the best scorer? Terrence Williams. Who makes the clutch plays? He's a great player for us."

As Pitino headed out into the unseasonably warm West Virginia air, he couldn't be more pleased with this team. Even though there was no trophy from the Big East, no championship T-shirts or hats, there was a calming sense of pride that the Cardinals had accomplished something few had projected when the Big East play began in January -- an outright title.

What else did I learn?

Connecticut athletic director Jeff Hathaway leaves for Indianapolis early this week. Hathaway, one of the 10 members of the NCAA tournament selection committee, was at Saturday's game between UConn and Pitt. Hathaway said the hardest thing for the selection committee will be to separate the final teams selected into the field. Well, it got a bit easier for some teams Saturday. Hathaway said conference tournament games matter since they are, well, games. But it helps to have some of the teams whittle themselves down.

Cincinnati lost at home in overtime to Seton Hall. If the Bearcats had an outside shot at an at-large bid, they had to beat the Pirates to make a strong case at 9-9 in the Big East. The way Cincinnati got to 8-10 isn't going to be enough.

Syracuse beat Marquette. The Golden Eagles are sliding without Dominic James. There is no other way to spin it. The Golden Eagles are in serious trouble -- not for a bid, but to even win a game, let alone multiple games, going forward.

Maryland lost to Virginia. The Terps aren't making this easy on themselves. It's hard to sell Maryland now at 18-12, 7-9 and losing three of four games to end the regular season. Their wins over North Carolina and Michigan State are two big chips and at least keep the Terps on the board if they can win a couple games in the ACC tournament. I hesitate to say they're dead because of those two wins.

Miami came back and beat NC State. If the Hurricanes had a pulse for the NCAA tournament prior to Saturday it would have stopped with a loss to the Wolfpack. They trailed by nine at the half. Miami can now at least stay in the chase if it can make a decent run in Atlanta in the ACC tourney after finishing 7-9 in the league, 18-11 overall. The Canes have good numbers and simply need to win their first game in Atlanta to feel like they should be right in the mix for a possible bid. For some reason the Canes continue to be left out of the conversation for bubble teams. Miami is still very much in play.

DeShawn Sims
AP Photo/Andy KingDeShawn Sims led Michigan to a much-needed road victory over Minnesota.
Boston College beat Georgia Tech. Rakim Sanders hit an off-balance, 15-foot jumper on the final possession to beat the last-place Yellow Jackets. BC may have been put in the lock category a bit too fast, prior to this week's games at NC State and home against Georgia Tech. Their wins over North Carolina and Duke are tourney-worthy, but the Eagles couldn't afford to slump into the ACC tourney. Beating Tech gives BC a 9-7 ACC record. Conference records don't hold as much weight with the committee unless a team has quality wins and limited bad losses. BC now qualifies for a bid.

Michigan won at Minnesota. The Wolverines needed a quality road win to bookend the season with the earlier wins over UCLA in New York and Duke at home. Taking out a team with a similar record helps the Wolverines' profile. Michigan had just beaten Purdue within the past two weeks, too. The Wolverines should feel decent about their chances. Minnesota may need to sweat.

Penn State lost to Iowa in double overtime. The Nittany Lions' last-second win over Illinois at home gave them a sweep of the Illini. That should be enough. Or is it? Did this loss give the committee reason to pause? We'll see after Penn State plays in Indianapolis at the Big Ten tournament.

Arizona State beat Cal. The Sun Devils were in the field, but they absolutely, positively had to win this game for any kind of confidence going forward after losing to Stanford at home Thursday. Cal should be fine for a bid after beating Arizona on Thursday.

Arizona should be fine. The Wildcats beat Stanford on Saturday for a win that simply turns the dial. Arizona has the body-of-work résumé with nonconference wins over Gonzaga and Kansas. Beating UCLA and Washington plays in its favor, too. Splitting the weekend homestand should clinch a bid.

Washington beat Washington State. The Huskies won the Pac-10 outright and did a phenomenal job of bouncing back after any loss this season. They deserve plenty of credit from the coaching staff on down for winning the true round-robin slate.

Kansas coach Bill Self should collect multiple national coach of the year honors. The Jayhawks won the Big 12 title outright Saturday with a 10-point win over Texas. Sure, the Jayhawks beat Oklahoma without an injured Blake Griffin. But that's life. Sorry, there's no reason to have an excuse here. The Jayhawks earned this title by riding the leadership of Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich and showing patience as the rest of the youthful Jayhawks matured during the season. Meanwhile, Texas finishes a disappointing 9-7 in the Big 12. But don't be afraid to leapfrog the Longhorns over fellow 9-7 teams Kansas State and Oklahoma State for bids. The body of work for the Longhorns is much better.

Bill Self
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerThere was no title hangover for Bill Self and Kansas, as the Jayhawks captured yet another Big 12 title.
Oklahoma reasserted itself with a win over Oklahoma State. Blake Griffin continued to dominate the player of the year race with a 33-point, 14-rebound game. The Sooners should be just fine once they get into the NCAAs now that Griffin is no longer dealing with the effects of his concussion.

Texas A&M beat Missouri. The Aggies always had the body of work necessary with their nonconference wins over LSU and Arizona. But the Aggies needed a bookend win. Beating Missouri suffices. The Aggies are in at 9-7, 23-8 overall.

Kansas State finished 9-7 in the Big 12. Unfortunately, that might not be enough. The Wildcats must do some work in the Big 12 tournament.

South Carolina beat Georgia. This doesn't do anything to change the fact that the Gamecocks haven't beaten a top-50 RPI team. Though it does ensure the Gamecocks didn't lose to Georgia, something that Florida and Kentucky did this season.

Say hello to Auburn's candidacy as an at-large team and a threat to win the SEC tournament. Auburn beat LSU on Saturday to improve to 21-10 overall, 10-6 in the SEC, holding LSU to a season-low 53 points. Auburn has won eight of nine games (six of them by double digits), and is also the only SEC team with wins over both Tennessee and LSU. The negative on the Tigers is their best nonconference win is at Virginia by two. If the committee wants to slice the Tigers apart, they'll find they were an SEC team only, and the question will be: Is that enough?

Florida beat Kentucky. The Gators now have a chance to get in the NCAAs after a one-year hiatus. Notice I said "chance." Kentucky probably has to win the SEC tournament.

Memphis swept through another Conference USA season. It's quite an accomplishment for the Tigers. The tournament is in Memphis, so the Tigers don't have to travel. Conference USA finally got smart and moved the tournament to Tulsa, Okla., next season to give itself a chance at multiple bids. This is a one-bid league again.

New Mexico beat Wyoming. The Lobos took out the Cowboys by one point Saturday, holding on by stopping Wyoming's last chance to win the game. UNM earned a share of the MWC regular-season title after being picked in the middle of the pack in the preseason. Tony Dandridge scored 29 points and deserves serious consideration for MWC Player of the Year. More importantly, the Lobos stay in the discussion to get an at-large berth with a share of the MWC title, despite a weak nonconference résumé.

San Diego State beat UNLV. It's getting harder for the Rebels to make their case, as they dropped to 9-7 in the conference, even though a win at Louisville earlier in the season keeps looking better.

Host Albany knocks out Vermont in the America East tournament. The Catamounts tied with Binghamton for the America East regular-season title. They better hope the Bearcats win the tournament so Vermont can still get an NIT bid.

Rhode Island loses at the buzzer to UMass at home. The Rams still can finish in second place in the A-10 at 11-5. But URI couldn't afford a blemish this late in the season at home. It may be a tough sell.

Who had Brad Greenberg getting a bid before Seth Greenberg? Radford beat VMI for the Big South title, which is great news for the Greenberg family and Seth's former assistant at Virginia Tech, but it does deny the NCAA a great story with the Holmes twins and an exciting offense in the Keydets.

What to do with Creighton? Booker Woodfox saved the Bluejays with a last-second shot to beat Wichita State. But on Saturday, he couldn't do enough against Illinois State, which looked like the Redbirds of earlier this season when they were one of the last unbeatens. Creighton won 26 games and beat Dayton but now must seriously sweat Selection Sunday. The Valley could be destined for one bid for the second straight season.

The North Dakota State dream season continues. The Bison beat Centenary 83-77 in the first round of the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., after blowing a 19-point halftime lead. The Bison are in their first year of Division I and won the Summit league with a 16-2 record.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com