College Basketball Nation: 2011 Big East tournament

NEW YORK -- Her son had just put the finishing touches on both an extraordinary individual accomplishment and a team triumph when Andrea Walker finally exhaled.

She looked almost more whipped than her son, pausing to collect herself and breathe deeply while her other son guided her to a seat and friends rubbed her shoulders.

Andrea Walker was emotionally drained, yes, but surprised? No, she wasn’t surprised.

The third of her four children has never been ordinary, not since quite literally he drew his first breath.

Twenty-one years ago in May, Andrea Walker felt the first pangs of labor, and, well-schooled in the routine of childbirth, she got herself over to North Central Hospital in the Bronx. Her husband, Paul, was at work, so her sister drove.

She figured Paul would be there in plenty of time.

Only this child wasn’t going to be like the other two.

[+] EnlargeKemba Walker
Nicole Sweet/US PresswireKemba Walker scored 130 points in 190 minutes during UConn's run through the Big East tournament.
In fact, he wasn’t going to be like anyone else.

“He was born in the hallway,’’ she said. “I got to the hospital, but he was in such a hurry, he came in the hallway. He was ready. He’s always been ready for anything. I think he was meant to be special.’’

Few right now would argue with what otherwise might simply sound like a mother’s pride.

We are at the point where we have run out of adjectives to describe Kemba Walker.

And so perhaps it is better to describe Walker in numbers: 130 points. 190 minutes played out of a possible 205. One buzzer-beating, winning shot. One drive through three people to get the winning assist.

And one unforgettable, improbable and borderline impossible Big East tournament championship.

Walker’s last game here was not his most overwhelming, but it was easily his most heroic. So exhausted he admitted he couldn’t feel his legs, Walker led Connecticut to a 69-66 victory over Louisville that will go down as the most memorable Big East tournament run in history.

“I’m out of words,’’ said Walker, who also was clearly out of gas. “I can’t describe it. It’s just so special, but I knew we could do it. I knew it."

He was so confident, in fact, he promised his mother after Connecticut lost its regular-season finale to Notre Dame on March 5 that he would bring her home a championship trophy.

Never mind that the Huskies had lost four of their past five.

Never mind that UConn would have to win five games in five nights, four against ranked opponents. Neither of which had ever been done by a college basketball team anywhere.

“He promised me,’’ Andrea Walker said. “And he always keeps his promises.’’

Trophies don’t come engraved with redemption, nor do they have the power to absolve. But in this one, there is at least the slight whiff of vindication.

This has not been an easy year for Jim Calhoun or Connecticut.

The Huskies spent most of the season under the shadow of an NCAA investigation, waiting for the hammer to fall. When it finally did, it struck the prideful Calhoun, suspending him for three Big East games next season.

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesJim Calhoun's Huskies had to win five games in five days to secure the Big East title.
He, of course, didn’t want the vindication. He said he didn’t need it as a coach nor as a person.

But even the grizzled coach, who has won all there is to win, done all there is to do and seen all there is to see, said this was particularly special.

“When the kids get it, it’s like magic,’’ he said. “That’s what this is. It’s magic.’’

Fittingly, in a tournament in which seven of 15 games were decided by three points or fewer or in overtime, the championship game had unparalleled drama.

Riding an adrenaline rush and a raucous Madison Square Garden stuffed to the gills with UConn fans, the Huskies built a 14-point lead and survived Walker’s longest run on the bench. With 7:35 to play in the first half, he was whistled for his second foul. Since the Huskies led by 10, Calhoun took the calculated risk and benched Walker for the next seven minutes and 15 seconds.

The whole building seemed to deflate, the crowd reacting as though it had come to see a Broadway star and got stuck with the understudy.

But Louisville merely put a dent in the lead and trailed 38-32 at the break.

When the second half started, though, the endless week of games finally caught up to Connecticut. The Cardinals scored eight unanswered points as the Huskies missed their first seven shots.

With Louisville’s foot on its jugular, UConn still wouldn’t relent.

Alex Oriakhi scored on a dunk, Jeremy Lamb scored on a follow-up and Shabazz Napier drained a 3-pointer, the supporting cast filling in when the star needed some help.

“It comes from him,’’ freshman Roscoe Smith said. “The toughness, all of it. He told us since the beginning of the year that we were better than people thought we were, and we believed him. We weren’t leaving here without a trophy for him.’’

Walker was visibly exhausted. He practically panted while readying to shoot free throws. During a few offensive possessions, he stood out on the wing, hands on his knees, tugging at his shorts -- the universal basketball sign for tiredness.

“I was worried about him,’’ Calhoun said.

Watching from the front row under the basket, Andrea Walker was worried, too. She knew he was tired -- he had told her as much earlier in the week -- but she also knew he wouldn’t quit.

When he was a kid, he was so determined to improve that he’d go the basketball court behind the house and just shoot for hours by himself. From her bedroom window, Andrea Walker could hear the clank of the ball on the rim and see her little boy out there alone.

“It would be 4 or 5 in the morning, and I’d hear the bang, bang, bang of the ball bouncing,’’ she said. “I’d look out, and there he’d be.’’

And so when Connecticut needed one more miracle in a week’s worth of miracles, Walker somehow summoned it.

After Preston Knowles missed a chance at putting a dagger into Connecticut by missing the hoop on a drive, Smith secured the rebound, and Calhoun called a timeout. Louisville led 64-63.

As the teams came back on the court, the Garden stood. Everyone knew where the ball was going.

Walker dribbled at the top of the key, pushing around Louisville guard Peyton Siva, then slipping through two defenders in a space so slim, a human body shouldn’t be able to fit. As he nosed his way to the defense, Walker drew the attention of the entire building and, more importantly, the entire Louisville defense’s concentration. In the last split second, he deftly dropped the ball into Lamb’s hands. Lamb laid the ball in, and UConn took the lead.

“I felt in my bones he was going to do this,’’ Andrea Walker said. “Since the day I gave birth to him, I believed he would be special, that he’d have a moment. This was his moment.’’

Rapid Reaction: UConn 69, Louisville 66

March, 12, 2011
NEW YORK -- A quick take on Connecticut's 69-66 win over Louisville in the Big East tournament championship game on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

What it means: The Huskies won the Big East title in spectacular fashion on Saturday night, becoming the first team in NCAA history to win five games on consecutive nights to win a league championship. The Huskies held off a tough Louisville team late in the second half and Kemba Walker (19 points) had his fingerprints all over the win.

The ninth-seeded Huskies matched a tournament record with their seventh title, tying Georgetown. It was the Huskies' first conference championship since 2004.

Walker, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, had a sensational week. He sank a last-second shot against top-seeded Pittsburgh on Thursday, then dropped 33 points and had 12 rebounds in an overtime win over Syracuse on Friday. He scored 19 points on 6-of-14 shooting to lead UConn to its first win over Louisville in three tries this year.

The skinny: Walker picked up his second foul at the 7:15 mark and was replaced by Shabazz Napier. UConn was up 12 at the time but led by six at the half as Walker sat out all but the final 13 seconds. He went scoreless over a 14:40 stretch between the end of the first and beginning of the second half.

The Cardinals, who trailed Notre Dame by 14 at the half in their semifinal win on Friday, showed great second-half resolve once again. Preston Knowles hit a jumper with 1:58 to go to give Louisville a 64-63 lead, but Walker fed Jeremy Lamb for a layup on a sensational drive and dish with 33 seconds left. Walker then hit two free throws following a Cardinals turnover to put the Huskies up 67-64 with 16.4 seconds to play.

Mike Marra made it interesting by drawing a foul on a pump-fake from behind the arc with 3.9 seconds to go. But he hit just two of three. Nappier sealed it with two free throws.

By the numbers: UConn, the No. 9 seed, is 25th in the country in field goal defense (39.9) and eighth in blocked shots (5.8). Louisville shot 45 percent from the field but just 28 percent from beyond the arc.

Connecticut has now appeared in 10 Big East tournament title games, trailing only Syracuse (13) and Georgetown (11).

Over five games, Walker has scored 130 points, the most in a single Big East tournament. He also passed Armon Bassett, who scored 117 points for Ohio in 2010, for most points in a single conference tournament in the past 15 years.

Star watch: Besides Walker, Lamb had 13 points and seven rebounds, including the layup on a feed from Walker. Roscoe Smith had 12 points and five offensive rebounds, crushing the Cardinals.

Knowles finished with 18 on 7-of-17 shooting. He shot 4-of-11 from 3-point land. Peyton Siva, who seemed to battle an ankle injury in the second half, had 13 and seven rebounds.

What's next: UConn will find out just how much this run boosted its stock on Sunday evening when the selection committee announces seeding for the NCAA tournament. The Cardinals and Huskies will be among an expected group of 11 Big East teams to earn a bid to the Big Dance.

Video: Connecticut wins Big East title

March, 12, 2011

The Connecticut Huskies beat the Louisville Cardinals 69-66 in the Big East tournament title match.

Video: Previewing the Big East title game

March, 12, 2011

Digger Phelps previews the Big East championship game between Louisville and Connecticut.

Big East championship preview

March, 12, 2011
NEW YORK -- When asked what he thought his team’s Big East tournament championship game against Connecticut would be like, Rick Pitino laughed.

“Well I don’t think this game will be a work of art,’’ he said.

This won’t be where-points-went-to-die ugly like the Wisconsin-Penn State mudder on Thursday, but it will be a slugfest. Both teams are gassed.

Yet both teams also feel like they have something to prove still, and this game is the ultimate proving ground, the final trophy from the toughest league in the country.

The Big East Conference hasn’t disappointed all season. Why would it start now, in its last game?

Fatigue level
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun insisted on Friday night, "We won’t be tired. We won’t be tired." He might have been trying to convince himself more than anything else. There’s no way the Huskies won’t be standing on rubbery legs. Yes, guys played a bunch of games back in high school during the summer league travel circuit, but anyone who has watched five minutes of those games knows the intensity isn’t quite the same as the Big East.

Louisville won’t be fresh as a daisy, either. The Cardinals are only on Game 3, but all three have tipped off at 9:30 p.m. ET and sent the Cards out of the Garden after 1 a.m. That wears on a team, as does a bite-the-inside-of-your-mouth overtime winner against Notre Dame.

Players to watch
I’m waiting for some entrepreneurial salesman with a trinket stand outside of Madison Square Garden to start hawking WWKD bracelets to the masses. What will Kemba do?

What’s left? Own the city? Check. Set a national scoring record in a conference tournament? Check. Practically will his team to an unforgettable season? Check. Hang out with an ex-president? Check.

Kemba Walker has scored 111 points in four days. There is no Kemba on the Louisville roster, but that’s not a knock on the Cards. There are no Kembas on any other roster.

What the Cardinals have is what Pitino accurately described as a group of "very good players, maybe no NBA players right now, but good players who want to win." The Cards are that oddity in college basketball, an honest to goodness sum-of-our-parts team. In this game, though, the most critical cogs will be Peyton Siva and Preston Knowles. It will be up to one of them to handle Walker defensively.

Recent history
The Cardinals are 2-0 against the Huskies this season, beating UConn in Louisville 71-58 and in Connecticut, 79-78 in double overtime.

What to look for
How will the Huskies, especially as drained as they must be, handle Louisville’s pressure? The Cardinals’ defense has been relentless and unforgiving down the stretch, and they will try to disrupt and speed up Walker and company. In two games this season, Louisville forced Connecticut into 28 turnovers.

The Huskies need to respect the arc. Kyle Kuric has been and can be lethal when he gets going. UConn did a nice job on him in its most recent game -- he had only six points -- but in the double overtime Louisville win, he had 15.

Frankly, though, this game is going to come down to intangibles that a box score can’t explain. Connecticut is going for history -- no one has ever won five games in five nights in college basketball. And Louisville is going for respect. Like the Huskies, the Cardinals weren’t expected to be here, but there’s probably more doubters still lurking about Louisville’s abilities than there are surrounding UConn.

NEW YORK -- As he huddled up his team during a late timeout, Louisville coach Rick Pitino realized Preston Knowles had his head down.

“I said, ‘Hey, look at me, look me in the eye,’’ Pitino said. “And he said, ‘I can’t.’ He was that tired. Then we go back out and he dogged a guy the whole length of the court, never let up.’’

That has been Knowles’ MO all season -- never let up.

He has endured his share of infamy -- his foolish foul a zip code away from the basket cost Louisville a win against West Virginia -- but he hasn’t stopped.

Nor has Louisville. The overachieving Cardinals are ready to scale yet another improbable mountain. With its 83-77 overtime win against Notre Dame, Louisville faces Connecticut in the Big East tournament final in a matchup featuring a team picked to finish eighth in the preseason versus one expected to land at tenth.

The Cardinals are here for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the superb job Pitino has done coaching this group. He has catered his teaching to this team’s strengths, building up a defensive behemoth that thrives on disruption. Against the Irish, somehow the native New Yorker’s warnings of "shoot-uh" could be heard loud and clear over the frenzied Madison Square Garden.

But they are here also because of Knowles. The senior has welcomed the mantle of leader with grace, comfortable in his abilities to lead a team.

His spot is so secure now that, during the first half when Pitino lost his cool and was about to get a technical, Knowles calmed him down.

“Me and Coach, our relationship has just skyrocketed,’’ Knowles said. “When I talk to him he actually listens to me now.’’

Knowles rarely talks about himself and though he will, when pressed, admit that he is fueled by the notion that he, like his team, flies a little bit under the radar, he doesn’t really care about individual nonsense.

Consequently, neither does his team.

Pitino has called this the most enjoyable team he’s been around since 1987, a group that is selfless to a fault.

And he knows the root of that attitude: It is Knowles.

“We don’t care about what anyone else thinks about us or awards or any of that,’’ he said. “We just care about winning.’’

Knowles took care of that, too, last night. Notre Dame led by as many as 16 in the first half and 14 at the break. The Irish picked apart the Cards’ defense easily and appeared headed for another rout in as many nights.

Instead, Louisville recorded its biggest comeback of the season.

The Cards cut it to two, 66-64, with 3:53 left in regulation, but then Peyton Siva was whistled for his fifth foul. The point guard, who just a play before deftly cut through the Notre Dame defense to kick a pretty pass to a wide-open Kyle Kuric, sat down with 15 points and seven assists.

What should have been game over instead became game on.

Knowles seamlessly slid over to the point guard position, opting mostly to keep the ball in his own hands. He scored Louisville’s final eight points in regulation to force the overtime.

Given the chance to crow about his own success Knowles, of course, deflected the praise. He cited his teammates for setting solid screens to get him open, ignoring his relentless attack on the rim.

“I don’t care about all that,’’ he said. “I just want to win.’’

Don’t expect him to let up.

Kemba Walker wows 'em at the Garden

March, 11, 2011

NEW YORK -- Still wearing his uniform and only 30 minutes after he took another bite out of Manhattan, Kemba Walker climbed into the stands to pose for a picture with former President Bill Clinton.

What wasn’t clear: Who wanted the picture, Walker or Clinton?

Last year, when the 42nd president took a seat at center court, Madison Square Garden buzzed. Now, Clinton is merely one of the adoring masses.

It is Walker bringing the hum to the arena, his incredible run impressing everyone from opposing fans to crusty journalists to, yes, even former heads of state.

In four nights, Walker has scored 111 points, the most by anyone in any conference tournament anywhere.


And he’s not done. He still has a game to play, and thanks to Walker, so does Connecticut.

His 33 points and 12 rebounds led the Huskies to a 76-71 overtime win against Syracuse, putting UConn in the Big East tournament final against either Notre Dame or Louisville.

“He amazes me all the time,’’ freshman Jeremy Lamb said. “You see it and it’s like, ‘Wow, did he just do that?’ I didn’t even notice how many points he had tonight, and then you look up and it’s like, oh my goodness.’’

Now comes the hardest part of all.

In college basketball history, 15 teams have won four postseason games in four days.

No one has ever won five.

“We’re trying to shock the world,’’ Walker said.

The question is, will he need the defibrillator after?

Walker has played 157 out of a possible 165 minutes here, including all 45 against the Orange. There is no easy version of 157 minutes, but Walker’s are especially hard.

He is Allen Iverson-esque, a generously listed 6-foot-1 squirt who drives his body into the forest of big men with little care. When he’s not splitting a defense, he’s sprinting downcourt leading the offense.

At one point against Syracuse, Walker corralled a rebound and came down grimacing. He’d been poked in the eye, and with his eyes squinting and blinking, he continued to dribble until an official offered up a mercy whistle.

Walker didn’t come out. Of course he didn’t. He just squinted a little and kept dribbling.

It is a brutal daily beating, even for someone who smiled to remind people, "Hey, I’m only 20."

But sometimes, Walker admitted, 20 feels a little more like 70, especially in the mornings when he pulls his creaking body out of bed.

“I definitely wake up hurting,’’ he said.

UConn coach Jim Calhoun is hoping he can fool his Huskies into believing they aren’t tired. He has five freshmen, including two who start, and figures maybe ignorance can be bliss.

“We’re going to do everything we can -- deceive, lie,’’ Calhoun said, laughing. “We’re going to tell them that teams play their best after four games in row, that they get their rhythm.’’

But is it all -- the beat-up bodies, physical fatigue, mental exhaustion -- worth it less than a week before the NCAA tournament tips off?

Most would argue no. This tournament, while enjoyable and incredible, is technically the warm-up. The tournament starts next week.

Twice in Big East history, a team has won four games in four nights. In 2006, Gerry McNamara led Syracuse to the title in what was then a marathon run. In 2008, Pittsburgh matched the Orange’s efforts.

Both of those teams, though, ran out of gas in the NCAA tournament. Syracuse lost to Texas A&M in the first round, Pittsburgh to Michigan State in the second.

And so plenty will wonder whether the Huskies are trying to make history here at the expense of a bigger prize. To those outsiders, the Big East players say simply: You don’t get it.

“It’s the best college basketball tournament in the world,’’ Walker said. “It means everything to us. If you don’t play in this league, you can’t understand.’’

Of course, winning a national championship is the ultimate dream, but winning a Big East one is almost as meaningful.

Asked to answer the impossible riddle -- would you rather win a Big East tournament and lose in the first round or lose here and advance further, Alex Oriakhi smiled.

“Oh man, I don’t know,’’ he said. “All I know is I want to win a Big East tournament title.’’

As does Walker. As a New York City kid, he probably gets it more than most. He gets how tough this league is and he gets what it means to call yourself the best of the best.

And so on Saturday morning, he will ease his sore body out of bed. He will hope that athletic trainer James Doran has a little bit of magic left. He will rest and play video games and rest and eat and rest and then hopefully rest a little more.

He’s already caught a president’s attention.

He’s already made history.

Now it’s time to make a legend.
NEW YORK -- A quick take on Connecticut's 76-71 overtime win over Syracuse on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.

What it means: UConn (25-9), the No. 9 seed, wins its fourth game in four days and advances to the Big East championship game by knocking off the No. 4 seed Syracuse (26-7). The Huskies were 0-8 in the regular season against the teams seeded No. 1 through No. 6 in this tournament. Now they've beaten No. 1 Pitt and No. 4 Syracuse back to back.

Star watch: Kemba Walker, who had 78 points in his first three games of this tournament, poured in 33 more -- shattering the Big East single tournament scoring record in the process. Walker shot 9-for-18 from the field, and 13-for-14 on free throws.

Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine had big games for the Orange, finishing with 20 points each.

The skinny: The first half of this one was an intense, low-scoring battle. Syracuse jumped out to a 12-5 lead. UConn bounced back and took command, leading 26-21. Syracuse scored the last four points of the half, cutting it to 26-25 at intermission. Syracuse shot a woeful 10-for-37 from the field (27 percent); UConn was even worse, at 8-for-30 (26.7 percent).

Both teams shot the ball much better in the second half. Connecticut appeared to have control, leading 68-62 with 25.1 seconds left in regulation. But two clutch Jardine 3-pointers sandwiched around a missed 1-and-1 by Shabazz Napier enabled Syracuse to send the game into overtime.

In the extra period, the Orange missed the front end of two one-and-one's at the foul line, freshman Jeremy Lamb made two critical buckets late, and Walker finished it off with two free throws.

Number crunch: Let's take a look at the rest of Walker's stat line, in addition to his 33 points. The diminutive 6-foot-1 guard had 12 rebounds, to go along with five assists and six steals. Simply spectacular.

What's next: UConn will play its fifth game in five days on Saturday night at 9 p.m. ET, against the winner of No. 2 seed Notre Dame and No. 3 seed Louisville, for the Big East championship. Syracuse heads home to central New York, and awaits Selection Sunday.

Video: Syracuse-UConn epic revisited

March, 11, 2011

"SportsCenter" looks back at the classic six-overtime Big East tournament battle between Syracuse and Connecticut in 2009. The two teams play in the semifinals Friday at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN).

Big East semifinals preview

March, 11, 2011
NEW YORK -- It is time to offer these Big East semifinals a name for the marquee.

For this New York City nightcap between Connecticut and Syracuse/Louisville and Notre Dame, let’s go with "The Improbables."

Three of these teams aren’t supposed to be here and the fourth was left for dead two months ago.

But in what has been a turbulent, unpredictable and highly entertaining season in this conference, maybe this is how it ought to turn out: improbably.

Connecticut vs. Syracuse

Improbability: High. The Huskies were picked 10th in the preseason, play five freshmen and start three of them. The Orange, meanwhile, may be the only team with the preseason notion of fitting in -- Syracuse was picked third in the Big East and ranked 13th nationally in the preseason -- but their January swoon left many wondering whether the Cuse would reach its potential.

Recent history: In their only meeting in the regular season, Syracuse won 66-58. The Orange remain the only team to hold Kemba Walker under double digits all season. Against the Cuse zone, he shot just 3-of-14 from the floor, 1-of-6 from the arc and finished with eight points.

Players to watch: For UConn, there has been one man to watch all season and that is Walker. The junior added yet another exclamation point to his incredible season with a buzzer-beating winner against Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals Thursday. For Syracuse, keep an eye on Brandon Triche. He has the ability to be the outside threat that the Orange so desperately need and when he’s on, he can spread the defense and open things up for Rick Jackson inside.

What to look for: If Roscoe Smith can play against the Orange -- he participated in the team shootaround and is expected to be available after getting eight stitches from an errant elbow to the head against Pitt -- that helps UConn significantly. The Huskies need Smith and Alex Oriakhi to contain Jackson, who went for 13 points and 13 rebounds in the regular-season matchup. Equally important: How will Connecticut puncture the Cuse zone? The Huskies struggled last time, turning the ball over 14 times and shooting only 36 percent, including 8-of-23 from the arc.

Notre Dame vs. Louisville

Improbability: Off the charts. The Irish lost Luke Harangody, a one-time league player of the year and the central focus of their offense for four years. Notre Dame didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason polls and was tabbed for a seventh spot in the Big East. Louisville was even less likely to be a semifinalist. The Cardinals returned just one starter from a team that lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament and were right behind the Irish in the conference preseason poll, checking in at eighth.

Recent history: Don’t be surprised if you get an extra act here. These two teams have gone to overtime in five of their last nine meetings, including the 89-79 win for Notre Dame this season. The Irish quickly ended the tension in that matchup, scoring the first 14 points in OT.

Players to watch: Ben Hansbrough has brought the life to the Irish party, giving Notre Dame a nasty edge it’s never really had before. He is borderline cocky but the Big East Player of the Year has the numbers to back it up -- he’s shooting a blistering 45 percent from the arc. Louisville’s Preston Knowles is the Cardinals’ most critical player. A more-than-capable scorer, the guard also directs the Louisville offense and has been sensational lately. Since missing a game against DePaul on Feb. 5 with a hamstring injury, Knowles is averaging 4.7 assists per game.

What to look for: Louisville has recently been absolutely stifling defensively. The Cardinals have held five of their last six opponents to under 60 points and opponents are shooting just 33.6 percent from the floor and 20 percent from the arc in the last five games. That last number will be especially interesting against the always hot-shooting Irish. Notre Dame, like Louisville, is great at spacing and finding ways to get clean looks for Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis, so it will be interesting to see which strength wins out here.

NEW YORK -- In the past 24 years, Rick Pitino has enjoyed a few special coaching moments.

Hung a few banners, hoisted some national championship hardware, dabbled in the NBA.

Which is why, when the Louisville coach said what he said, everyone’s ears sort of perked up.

“They’re a fun group to coach,’’ Pitino said. “Not since 1987 have I had this much fun coaching a basketball team.’’

Coach-speak hyperbole? Maybe.

But coaches are a unique bunch. They love to win and they love the glory that comes with it, but at their core, they love it when their message is heard, when the team they’re coaching plays the way they imagined basketball was supposed to be played somewhere in Hoops Utopia.

And for Pitino, that’s what this season has been.

That it comes after Pitino's worst year personally of course makes this all the more special. Even if he hadn’t gone through so much himself, the coach would have liked this season.

It is the age-old sports cliché come to life -- a team overcoming obstacles and rallying as the underdog -- but just because it’s cliché doesn’t make it any less rich.

This is the season when, off the court, practically nothing has gone right for Louisville. The Cards’ lone returning player, Jared Swopshire, has yet to play. Ten other guys have missed portions of the season with injury. Yet inexplicably, improbably, everything on the court has been seamless.

From the first tip, when they "upset" Butler to open the Yum! Center to Thursday’s night 81-56 rout of Marquette to reach the Big East tournament semifinals, the Cardinals have been a season-long band of overachievers who don’t seem to know or care that they’re overachieving.

“Not since 1996 did I walk into a place and feel as confident as this,’’ Pitino said. “And in 1996, I had a reason. I had eight pros. The way these guys play, with sacrifice and dedication, they bring it every game. It’s great to have that feeling.’’

What makes Louisville work doesn’t often work anymore: There is no superstar on the team. Preston Knowles is easily the leader and center of the Cardinals’ success, but he is as content and willing to cede the limelight as he is to step into it.

Against Marquette it was Mike Marra's turn. The player Pitino once tabbed the best high school shooter he’d ever seen, scored 22 points off the bench, draining six 3-pointers in the process.

But Marra was just one of four players in double figures for the Cards and was simply the beneficiary of a team's unselfish play.

Louisville dished out 24 assists on 30 made baskets.

“In this day and age, there’s a lot of talk about clichés, about playing for the name on the front of the chest and not the back, but this team truly epitomizes that,’’ Pitino said. “They absolutely do not care about themselves. All they care about is winning. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen players after a loss be as disappointed as the coaching staff and this group takes it hard as we do.’’

Notre Dame's benchAP Photo/Frank Franklin IIScott Martin (left), Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough are used to being overlooked, but with the Irish advancing to the semifinals, expectations may be on the rise for Notre Dame.
NEW YORK -- The irony is fairly delicious.

Ben Hansbrough won Big East player of the year honors, beating out Kemba Walker for the hardware.

Yet right now, the most valuable player for the Irish is Walker.

It was his errant pass in the waning seconds in Connecticut on Saturday that preserved Notre Dame’s 70-67 victory and it was Walker’s game-winning, step-back jumper that eliminated top-seed Pittsburgh from the Big East tournament. All of which paved the way for the Irish to state their case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Of course, it is one thing to have the road paved for you.

It is another to drive like you’re on the autobahn.

Stepping into the spotlight vacated by the Panthers’ early departure, Notre Dame didn’t blink. It ran roughshod over Cincinnati 89-51.

[+] EnlargeMike Brey and Carleton Scott
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIMike Brey's Fighting Irish are seeking the school's first Big East title.
When asked if his team deserved to be in the No. 1 seed conversation, head coach Mike Brey didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely we do,’’ he said. “I haven’t talked to them about that much because we talked about going here and getting our program to Saturday night. But strong résumé for it? Absolutely.’’

Brey’s refreshing candor is rare for coaches who typically prefer to believe their players live in some sort of informational vacuum.

But Brey recognized early he doesn’t have a typical team. His players are older -- four veterans and a wily transfer in Scott Martin -- and are not easily overwhelmed. At the beginning of the season, when the Irish went to Orlando for the Old Spice Classic, he thought about telling them that if they came away 2-1 it would be a good trip.

He didn’t and quickly realized what a mistake it would have been if he had.

“They would have been pissed at me,’’ he said of the eventual 3-0 weekend. “This team has been about the next challenge.’’

The Fighting Irish are a unique blend. Experienced, yes, but more accustomed to being underappreciated than overhyped.

In some ways it has worked against them.

The Irish long ago proved they were not impostors. They have lost five games this season, all to NCAA teams, and boast a 11-4 record against teams in the RPI top 50.

Among the top-15 teams, only Florida has played more top-caliber opponents but the Gators played seven of those against teams ranked between 25 and 50. Notre Dame faced 11 in the top 25 alone.

Yet somehow the notion that Notre Dame could be a top seed still seems implausible, as though this team remains a smoke-and-mirrors group of overachievers.

At what point does overachieving simply become achieving?

“I think we still surprise people,’’ Hansbrough said. “It’s like, ‘Wait, they weren’t in the top 40 preseason, were they? What are they doing here? Huh? Wow.’ But we like that. We feel like we’ve earned it.’’

And that is the flip side to the indifference, if not altogether disrespect.

The low expectations, the almost look-down-the-nose disdain that still resides in many camps has fueled Notre Dame.

These are, as Brey pointed out, former blue squadders, guys who bide their time as backups before stepping into the starring role. They are used to being overlooked, yet extremely comfortable in their own skin and even more confident in their abilities.

That quirky combination has allowed Brey to trust them more than any team he’s had before. It has also allowed him to thrust them directly into the line of fire without worrying that they’ll flinch.

When his team came to New York, trying to win its first Big East title (the Irish have never gotten beyond the semifinals), and with it take perhaps the residual glory of a No. 1 seed, Brey didn’t hesitate to boldly challenge them to live up to their expectations.

Rather than fear the pressure, he told them to embrace the moment, to smile.

He took them to Broadway to see Jersey Boys, not because he thought they’d like the music. He wanted them to appreciate artists at work, working together to create a masterpiece much like he believes his team has done all season.

“I think they’re glad that people don’t think that they’re very good still,’’ Brey said. “I think they like that. They’ve really used it to their benefit. Although I’m pretty certain we’re not hiding any more.’’

Jim Calhoun is not happy about the Big East All-Conference voting.

Kemba Walker
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comKemba Walker's buzzer-beater sent UConn to the Big East tournament semifinals.
See, Kemba Walker was voted first team Big East all-conference, but he wasn't a unanimous selection. Notre Dame guard Ben Hansbrough was the only such selection. That is, well, curious. It's not that Hansbrough doesn't deserve the accolades, of course. But if Hansbrough deserved love from each and every Big East coach -- the coaches vote on the award -- then surely Walker did, too.

But there was one coach who didn't vote for Walker. Who was it? Jim Calhoun thinks he knows. After Walker's late-game heroics in Connecticut's thrilling win over Pittsburgh Thursday, Calhoun made it clear that he doesn't appreciate the haters. From the Cincinnati Enquirer:
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun took a veiled shot at Mick Cronin during his press conference after the Huskies beat Georgetown in the Big East tournament Wednesday, suggesting that Cronin was the one coach who did not vote for Kemba Walker for first-team all-conference because he was upset that Walker picked UConn over UC.

"If anybody did it because they lost out on him recruiting-wise," Calhoun said, "which we went to one city this year and that was the story in the paper, something from three years ago."

Calhoun was referring to an Enquirer story previewing UConn's trip to Cincinnati Feb. 26. In the story, Cronin described how he thought he had Walker until "the last week" of Walker's recruitment -- Walker's parents told Cronin he was planning on coming to UC -- when the guard made a late decision to head to Storrs instead. But it should be noted that Cronin didn't exactly seem jilted. Rather, the Bearcats coach told the Enquirer he understood the decision, because UConn was rolling with Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien while Cincinnati was rebuilding and in 11th place in the Big East. "I don't think it was that hard a decision for him," Cronin said.

The quotes don't sound like someone who would later spurn a successful former recruit. So ... did Cronin leave Walker off his ballot?

The answer: No. And he's not too pleased at the suggestion:
"If he's got something to say, he needs to say it to me," Cronin said, "and you print that. How would he know who I voted for?" [...]

"I root for kids when I'm close to them and I like them," Cronin said. "That's unbelievable. I'd do anything for Kemba Walker. He's a class act. It's not me (who didn't vote for him) I can tell you that. If (Calhoun) wants to know who I voted for, he needs to ask me."

Remember when people used to spread rumors in high school? And the subjects of those rumors would always be really mad, not just because the rumor existed but because the offending party didn't "say it to my face!" Well, yeah. This is kind of like that. We're a half-step removed from someone making a burn book and passing it around to the other coaches in the Big East.

Unfortunately, these two won't be able to settle this little spat on the floor, at least not anytime soon. That was always unlikely; UConn and Cincy were seeded on opposite sides of the unwieldy Big East tournament bracket anyway. But thanks to Notre Dame's uber-efficient offense -- the Irish beat Cincinnati 89-51 (!) Thursday night -- this potentially heated title-game matchup is officially an impossibility.

Too bad. That postgame handshake had lots of promise.

Anyway, now we know Cronin didn't leave Walker off his ballot. So that's cleared up. Actually, no it's not: If Cronin voted for Walker, that means the culprit is still at large. One down, 15 to go.

Video: Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim

March, 10, 2011

Dana O’Neil talks with Jim Boeheim about Syracuse’s win over St. John’s.
NEW YORK -- A quick look at Syracuse’s 79-73 win over St. John’s in the Big East quarterfinal.

Overview: The Big East sure knows how to host a party. Before the crowd caught its breath from Kemba Walker's heroics, St. John’s and Syracuse put on terrific game. Whoever had the beleaguered Fab Melo securing the victory for the Orange ought to go play the lottery.

Turning point: Close for much of the game, this one was decided in the waning seconds but in less dramatic fashion. With the shot clock dwindling and the game clock below a minute, Brandon Triche dribbled down the lane and bounced a perfect pass to Melo to give the Cuse a 4-point cushion.

Key player: As dreadful as he was in the first half -- he was 1-of-7 from the floor, 1-of-5 from 3-point range -- Triche was that good in the second. The sophomore scored 13 of his 20 points, shooting 4 of 6. More important, he dished off a perfect bounce pass to Feb Melo with 32 seconds left, securing the win for the Orange.

Key stat: Neither team was Notre Dame-hot from the arc, but the Orange sunk seven 3-pointers and St. John’s landed three. When Triche started knocking them down, they really mattered for the Orange, forcing the Red Storm out on the perimeter more and opening things inside for Rick Jackson (10 points) and Melo (12).

Miscellaneous: The Red Storm played the second half without D.J. Kennedy. The senior injured his knee in the first half and did not return.

What’s next: The Orange advance to a semifinal date with Connecticut. Earlier this year Syracuse ended a four-game losing skid with a win at Hartford against the Huskies. The party ends early for St. John’s but for the first time in nine years, won’t be waiting on an NIT phone call. The Red Storm will only be concerned about seed and opponent.