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Saturday, March 10, 2012
Big East tournament: Saturday preview

By Dana O'Neil

NEW YORK -- In the middle of its showcase event, the Big East took a brief pause to host another dog and pony show, the latest and perhaps most bizarre of the league’s endless news conferences to discuss expansion.

It seemed strangely timed: a break during the one event that made the Big East famous in order to discuss the expansion that, in many people’s minds, has led to the league’s bastardization.

And it got stranger from there. Somehow storm water management came up, and Villanova and Temple officials shared such effusive praise of one another you half expected the people on the podium to end by singing "Kumbaya."

As it turns out, the mid-tournament break made perfect sense. Nothing this year is immune to conference expansion.

Not even, it turns out, the Big East tournament.

On Saturday night, Louisville and Cincinnati will play for the league crown, marking the first time that no founding member of the conference will play in the championship. The two schools are longtime rivals, dating back to their days in both the Metro Conference and Conference USA, but at first blush they don’t sing Big East.

“Conference USA comes to the Big Apple,’’ Louisville coach Rick Pitino quipped after his Cardinals beat Notre Dame in the semifinals.

Then again, this final could very well be a preview of what’s to come. West Virginia is gone, and in two years' time, Pittsburgh and Syracuse will leave for the ACC. They will be replaced by a group of teams of which only one (Temple) has the "East" part of the Big East down.

So perhaps in the last year before everything changes, this is the right tournament final: emphasizing the "Big," if not the "East."


What to watch:
Who to watch:
What’s at stake: Cincinnati has never played for, let alone won, a Big East tournament title since joining the conference. Louisville, meanwhile, is making its third appearance here in the past four years. In 2009, the Cards rode a Big East tournament crown to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Last season, the Cards lost to Connecticut.

Of note: Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin worked as an assistant under Pitino at Louisville but he has had his mentor’s number recently. Cincinnati has won three of its past four against Louisville. … The two schools, conference foes dating back through their years in the Metro and Conference USA leagues, have a pretty nice rivalry. Only 90 minutes of highway separates the two cities.