College Basketball Nation: 2012 Big East tournament

NEW YORK – Rick Pitino grew up on the East Side -- 26th Street, to be exact -- and like all boys who grew up with basketball visions dancing in their heads, Madison Square Garden was the Holy Land, the hallowed hardwoods for the gods.

He watched games there as a boy, even signed his scholarship papers to the University of Massachusetts on the Garden court.

When he coached there for the first time, as head coach at Providence, Pitino cried, overcome with emotion at what he had achieved.

And when he became the court’s primary caretaker as the head coach of the New York Knicks, those were pinch-yourself days.

Pitino is 59 now. He’s logged more of his professional career in the Commonwealth of Kentucky than the streets of Manhattan, but in his gut he remains the little kid who stared adoringly at the Garden.

This place still means something to him, and in an age of fraying conference loyalties and the death of collegiality, somehow it seemed fitting that at the last Big East tournament as we know it, the Garden King stood victorious.

Pitino and Louisville, a team even the hometown crowd had written off after a 33-point loss to Providence in January, topped Cincinnati 50-44 to win the Big East tournament title.

“I’ve had a lot of good memories in this place,’’ Pitino said amid the celebration on the court, “and this is one of them.’’

In recent years, plenty of people have argued the merits of conference tournaments. Outside of the one-bid-league fray, some say they are little more than annoying stopgaps to survive en route to the NCAA tournament.

After Syracuse was ousted by Cincinnati in the semifinals, the Orange said as much.

“As much as we want to win this tournament, the only one that matters is the one that starts next week,’’ coach Jim Boeheim said.

“Everyone says that,’’ Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin countered, “after they lose.’’

No one will question whether it matters to Pitino. Through a tumultuous year in the Big East, Pitino has emerged as the league’s primary politician and loudest cheerleader. He stumped for Memphis and Temple, practically begging his longtime friend and league commissioner John Marinatto to extend an invitation to the basketball-friendly schools.

And when Marinatto did, no one crowed more about what a fantastic job Marinatto had done, insisting that though the Big East will be different it will remain every bit as good, than Pitino.

Cynics might say he’s merely protecting his own brand. Louisville is here and no one left in the Big East wants anyone to think the conference is anything less than the power it always has been.

But to Pitino, it’s more than that. He holds the conference close to his heart, and while he accepts the changes he remains a traditionalist at heart, one who deeply believes in honoring the vision of league founder Dave Gavitt.

So to take home the crown, his second since Louisville joined in 2005, and the last in the league’s most powerful alignment, matters.

“This is the last time the Big East will be together like it was,’’ Cardinals guard Chris Smith said. “To win it, it means a lot to us. I know it means a lot to Coach P.’’

Pitino won the 10th conference title in his career (five SEC, two Big East, two Conference USA, and one North Atlantic) in vintage fashion, rebuilding another Humpty Dumpty of a team.

Along with massaging Gorgui Dieng into productivity, educating the enigmatic Russ Smith on the fine line of shot selection and riding the roller-coaster tendencies of point guard Peyton Siva, only three players have participated in all of the Cardinals’ games this year. The rest have helped construct an injury report that would make an NFL team blush:

[+] EnlargePitino
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comWinning another Big East title at Madison Square Garden after a tough season for Louisville was all the sweeter for New Yorker Rick Pitino.
Mike Marra, torn ACL, out all year; Rakeem Buckles, torn ACL, out since January; Stephan Van Treese, patellar injury, out all year; Wayne Blackshear, shoulder surgery, out 25 games; Siva, sprained ankle and concussion, missed three games; Kyle Kuric, sprained ankle, missed three games; Jared Swopshire, recovering from groin injury, missed two games.

It forced Pitino completely out of his comfort zone. He had to put the brakes on the fast-tempo style he’s always loved and felt this team was best suited for, and turned the Cardinals into a wildly unpredictable outfit.

“It was really hard,’’ Pitino's son and assistant coach Richard said. “In a lot of ways, this team overachieved, but then again he’s done that his whole career.’’

There is no secret to Pitino’s methods other than consistency.

Cronin spent two seasons working under Pitino at Louisville, taking a lifetime of learning in that short span.

“The most important thing he taught me is that you have to coach like you coach,’’ Cronin said. “You can't let outside people define who you are. You can’t let the kids splinter. You have to make sure they keep in mind who they are as people and who they are as a team.’’

It was a valuable lesson for Cronin this year as he shepherded Cincinnati from the black eye of the December brawl with Xavier to the brink of its first Big East crown -- and an equally crucial tool for the Cardinals.

The ante has been upped in Kentucky these days. Down the road in Lexington, John Calipari is busy collecting talent like a hoarder. His Wildcats will be announced as the overall No. 1 seed on Sunday evening and will head into the NCAA tournament as the favorite to win the title.

Louisville, in the meantime, has swung and missed on some recruits and entered the season on the heels of an NCAA tournament upset at the hands of Morehead State in the same year that Kentucky went to the Final Four.

“I know a lot of people back home doubted us,’’ Chris Smith said. “That’s OK. They’ll love us now.’’

Louisville did not win style points in this victory against Cincinnati. It was hard to watch, a slugfest where points were at a premium and the scoreboard had trouble nudging itself forward.

The Cards won because of their defense. Pitino challenged them to guard the arc like soldiers against the league’s leader in 3-pointers made per game -- “I told them I don’t care if they go by you; you have to guard them from the NBA line,’’ Pitino said.

It made all the difference. The same Cincinnati team that had 10 3-pointers by the half against Syracuse’s zone finished the game 3-of-14 against the Cardinals.

When the buzzer sounded, the players erupted, a mosh pit of infra-red jerseys celebrating in front of the court. Pitino, all business, walked to shake Cronin’s hand before finally breaking in to a wide grin as he hugged his assistants, wife and son, celebrating once more time on his own personal home court.

When he was walking in to work on Saturday night, a construction worker spied Pitino and yelled out, “Hey coach, you shoulda never left the Knicks!’’

“I looked up. He couldn’t have been more than 26 or 27,’’ Pitino said. “I yelled back, ‘You were in diapers.’’’

Perhaps, but New Yorkers never forget. Not when it comes to the Garden.

Video: Louisville's Peyton Siva

March, 11, 2012

After Louisville's 50-44 victory over Cincinnati in the Big East title game, Dana O'Neil caught up with Cardinals junior guard Peyton Siva.

Some quick thoughts from Louisville's 50-44 victory over Cincinnati in the Big East tournament final:

Overview: Louisville is your Big East tournament champion, for the second time in four years.

CincinnatiLouisvilleThe No. 7-seeded Cardinals, who won the title in 2009 and lost in the championship game to UConn last year, defeated No. 4 seed Cincinnati on Saturday night -- the Cardinals' fourth win in four days here in New York.

Cincinnati (24-10), playing in its first-ever Big East championship game, falls short, but should still feel very confident heading into next week's NCAA tournament after defeating Georgetown and Syracuse the past two days here.

Louisville (26-9), after a lackluster finish to the regular season, with three losses in its final four games, now enters the Big Dance with a world of momentum.

Turning point: The first half of this game wasn't pretty, to say the least. Louisville led 24-14 at intermission. Against Syracuse on Friday night, Cincinnati shot 8-for-13 from 3-point range in the first half. Tonight? The Bearcats were 0-for-9.

Cincinnati had a chance to cut the deficit to four with 12:12 left in the game, but Dion Dixon missed a pair of free throws. Louisville swiped the momentum right back when Kyle Kuric was fouled by Sean Kilpatrick on a 3-point attempt -- Kuric made all three free throws to make it 37-28. That was the beginning of a 10-0 run to give the Cardinals their largest lead, 44-28 with 8:28 remaining.

Just when the Bearcats looked all but dead, they rallied down the home stretch. Cincinnati cut it to 48-44, and Jaquon Parker had two free throws with 28.7 seconds left to make it 48-46 -- but he missed both. Louisville closed it out from there.

Key player: Chris Smith had a game-high 15 points for Louisville, and Kuric added 13. But Peyton Siva was Louisville's most valuable player this week, and that continued on Saturday. Siva's numbers were a little more modest against Cincinnati -- 10 points, five assists, four rebounds -- but he was the co-pilot of this championship ship, along with coach Rick Pitino.

Cashmere Wright led the Bearcats with 16 points.

Key stat: Cincinnati has been a poor free throw-shooting team this season, and it was costly in a big way tonight. The Bearcats made just 1 of 7 attempts, including those misses at crucial times mentioned above.

Miscellaneous: This is the first time in Big East tournament history that the championship game did not feature at least one founding member. The times, they are a-changin'. ... This was the fourth time in the past seven years that a team seeded No. 7 or lower has won the event.

What's next: Selection Sunday -- both these teams will hear their names called tomorrow.
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:
  • The low post. The battle between Gorgui Dieng and Yancy Gates should be a good one. Both have played well in this Big East tournament and both help make their teams very good on the boards.
  • Turnovers. Cincinnati has three very quick, very good guards in Dion Dixon, Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick and is very good at not turning the ball over. Only Syracuse had a better assist-to-turnover ratio in the Big East this season. Louisville will try to force tempo and get the Bearcats to make mistakes.
  • The free throw line. If this game is close, whichever team can hit from the charity stripe could win it, and neither is very good. Louisville averages just 68 percent from the line and Cincinnati is dead last, hitting only 64 percent.
Who to watch:
  • Kilpatrick. The Bearcats guard can -- and did against Syracuse -- get red-hot. He was 6-of-9 against the Orange and leads the Big East in 3-pointers made.
  • Peyton Siva. The Cards go as Siva goes, and lately he’s been going extremely well, which is why Louisville is in the final. In three games here, he has 18 assists to just eight turnovers and has scored 45 points.
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.
Overview: It might not be quite as impressive as what UConn pulled off last year, but Louisville is on a heck of a run here in New York City.

The Cardinals, the No. 7 seed in this year's Big East tournament, are headed to the championship game after knocking off No. 3 seed Notre Dame, 64-50.

Notre DameLouisvilleLouisville has now won three games in three days, taking out No. 10 seed Seton Hall, No. 2 seed Marquette and now the Fighting Irish. The Cardinals had a somewhat disappointing regular season, but are rising up the charts now in terms of NCAA tournament seeding.

Notre Dame will be in the Big Dance, too, but is now 0-5 in Big East semifinal games. The Irish lost to Louisville in last year's semis, too.

Turning point: Notre Dame took a 15-9 lead on a layup by Eric Atkins with 12:42 remaining in the first half. That was its last field goal of the half, believe it or not. Louisville outscored Notre Dame 26-4 the rest of the way and led 35-19 at intermission. The Cardinals' pressure defense simply suffocated the Fighting Irish.

Things didn't get any better for Notre Dame in the second half. The Irish managed to cut the deficit to 12 early on, but then the Cardinals poured it on again. Louisville led by as many as 24, and cruised to victory.

Key player: Louisville point guard Peyton Siva has been the MVP of this tournament so far. The 6-foot junior just missed a triple-double on Friday night, finishing with 13 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.

Notre Dame big man Jack Cooley was named second-team All-Big East, but Louisville center Gorgui Dieng dominated him tonight. The 6-foot-11 sophomore finished with a game-high 16 points, making all eight of his shot attempts

Atkins had 12 points to lead Notre Dame.

Key stat: Notre Dame shot horribly on Friday night -- from everywhere. The Irish were 19-for-52 from the field (36.5 percent), 10-for-19 from the foul line (52.6 percent) -- and most importantly, 2-for-16 from 3-point range (12.5 percent).

Miscellaneous: Louisville has now been to the Big East title game in three of the past four seasons. The Cardinals won the tourney in 2009, and lost in the final to UConn last year.

What's next: Louisville will face No. 4 seed Cincinnati, which stunned top seed Syracuse earlier this evening, in the Big East championship game, at 9 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN.

Notre Dame is headed back to South Bend to prepare for next week's Big Dance.

NEW YORK – The dialogue and the punches have been dissected now to almost every syllable and twitch. Everyone knows exactly what happened in the Dec. 10 brawl between Cincinnati and Xavier, knows every inappropriate word, every horrible action.

What everyone forgets: Xavier was right about one thing.

Remember, it all started because the Musketeers belittled the Bearcats for their lack of toughness, and while Cincinnati might have showed its street grit in the late-game melee, it showed its lack of basketball fortitude in the 23-point loss.

“We were soft,’’ Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “We were soft early.’’

In perhaps the strangest and most ironic twist in this twisted basketball season, on the same day the Bearcats were criticized for being too hard and played too soft, Cincinnati found the perfect medium.

The Bearcats grew up after that game and grew into a team that has gone from losing to Presbyterian at home to beating Syracuse in the Big East tournament semifinal, 71-68.

It is nothing less than an astounding turnaround, a morality play lived large on the hardwood.

Plenty of people wrote Cincinnati off early; plenty more were disgusted with the Bearcats after the brawl.

And now? Now they’re winning converts by the day.

[+] EnlargeCashmere Wright
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IICashmere Wright celebrates after Cincinnati upended Big East top seed Syracuse.
Cincinnati did not beat Syracuse because it hit 8 of 10 3-pointers in the first half, though that certainly helped.

The Bearcats won because they outplayed a team that had but one stain on their résumé.

“Where we come from, we play to win,’’ Cronin said. “We’re not in it for the old college try. When this tournament starts next week, we’re quietly going to try and win it. We don’t let people outside our locker room define who we are as people or as a team. We try to define ourselves and make sure we’re giving our best effort. That’s what greatness is.’’

Syracuse defined the word for the entirety of this Big East season, rolling through the regular season with just one loss, and that with an asterisk, as the Orange played without Fab Melo.

Syracuse came to Madison Square Garden with its orange army, expecting a coronation.

Instead, the Orange head back home empty-handed.

There is no way to sugarcoat it. Syracuse did not play well. A team that rarely turns the ball over coughed it up 15 times, stymied surprisingly by Cincinnati’s zone.

Seniors Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine were ineffective, their zone even less so.

The Bearcats meticulously and carefully broke it down, dishing out 17 assists on 25 made baskets. Only a last-minute dash thanks to a full-court press even made this game close.

Instead of their first Big East crown since assistant coach Gerry McNamara’s epic run to the title, the Orange leave digging for a silver lining, insisting they will learn more from the loss than maybe all of their 31 wins combined.

“Look, we want to win the Big East, we want to win every game we play in,’’ Jardine said. “But we could have won the Big East and lost next week and everyone would have forgotten about it. If we lose in the NCAA tournament, nobody would remember if we had won the Big East tournament. That’s the truth.’’

Of course if you’re in the Big East tournament, you view its worth a little differently and the Bearcats are salivating at the chance to claim their first league title of any kind since 2004, when they were Conference USA champs.

“I remember when I came here, I just thought how much I’d love to have a chance to play in that championship game,’’ Yancy Gates said.

Gates, the principal offender in that brawl with Xavier, arrived on campus in the lean years, and though he helped take the Bearcats back to the NCAA tournament a year ago, his senior season appeared headed for disaster.

Before the fight, he was as tentative as his teammates. Cronin would walk into practice and Gates would groan, knowing what was coming.

“I’d be like, ‘Man, I wish he’d just stay home or let one of his assistants run practice,'’’ Gates said.

That’s because Cronin was trying to conjure up something that only the Bearcats could find in themselves -- how to be tough. It took a toll on everybody. The players were demoralized, Cronin exhausted.

“This hasn’t been an easy year coaching,’’ Cronin said. “I’d tell them, ‘C’mon guys, I can’t do this every day. I want to go home and spend time with my daughter.’ They didn’t believe in themselves.’’

And then somewhere after Xavier called them out, humiliated them on the court, and their coach called them out in a postgame press conference, things changed.

The Bearcats won 10 of their next 11 and came to New York having won seven of their final nine.

Against Syracuse, UC sprinted out to a stunning 17-point lead, the Big East leader in 3-pointers made putting on nothing less than a shooting clinic early.

In between the horrible day in early December and this week, the narrative on Cincinnati has changed entirely. After its double-overtime win against Georgetown, a comeback from 11 points down, the Bearcats were lauded for their pluck, grit and yes, their character.

“We heard people saying all of that about us on television,’’ Gates said. “That’s the kind of team we’ve become.’’

Thoughts on Cincinnati's 71-68 upset of Syracuse on Friday:

Overview: Cincinnati is going where no Cincinnati team has gone before -- and Syracuse suddenly looks near-invincible no more.

In a stunning upset, in front of a sold-out crowd of 20,057 mostly Syracuse fans, No. 4 seed Cincinnati defeated the previously 31-1 and top-seeded Syracuse Orange 71-68, and advanced to its first Big East tournament championship game.

SyracuseCincinnatiThe Bearcats led from wire to wire and held off the Orange down the stretch. Syracuse will still be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament next week, but won't be quite as intimidating now.

Cincinnati (24-9) has its NCAA stock on the rise after back-to-back wins against Georgetown and Syracuse in New York.

Turning point: Cincinnati came out about as hot as you can get -- the Bearcats connected on eight of their first 10 3-point attempts and led by as many as 17 points in the first 20 minutes. Syracuse cut the deficit to 12, 35-23, at halftime.

Syracuse gradually whittled down the Cincinnati lead in the second half, all the way down to five -- and at one point Brandon Triche had two free throws to cut it to three with 4:10 left, but missed both, which was huge.

The two biggest shots of the game were a pair of corner treys by Sean Kilpatrick. The first, with 5:21 left, pushed Cincinnati's 55-50 lead to 58-50 and gave the Bearcats some much-need breathing room in the middle of Syracuse's push. The second, with 1:47 remaining, appeared to be the dagger, extending the lead from 62-55 to 65-55.

Syracuse made it interesting in the final seconds, thanks in large part to some missed free throws by Cincinnati. The Orange actually had the ball down 69-66 with 15 seconds left, but the Bearcats smartly fouled Dion Waiters before he could get off a game-tying 3-point attempt. Waiters made his two free throws, but then Cincinnati was able to inbound the ball, avoid a foul, and threw it ahead for a dunk to wrap things up.

Key player: Cincinnati big man Yancy Gates had just three points in the first half, when his team was lights-out from beyond the arc. But he he came up huge in the second half, with 15 points, cleaning up off the glass after some misses from the perimeter. He also had seven rebounds.

Kilpatrick, his teammate, also had 18 points and hit those two huge 3-pointers. The White Plains, N.Y., native will surely treasure doing this in front of the home crowd forever.

Waiters did everything he could to carry Syracuse on his back, with 28 points off the bench, including shooting 7-for-10 from 3-point range.

Key stat: Cincinnati, which shot just 2-for-21 from 3-point range in its double-overtime win over Georgetown on Thursday, shot 10-for-22 from beyond the arc against Syracuse.

Syracuse, which turned the ball over just four times in its win over UConn on Thursday, had 15 turnovers against Cincinnati.

Miscellaneous: Former U.S. president Bill Clinton was in attendance for the game, seated courtside.

What's next: Cincinnati will play No. 7 seed Louisville in the Big East title game, at 9 p.m. Saturday.

Syracuse heads back north to lick its wounds and get ready for the Big Dance.
NEW YORK -- Jim Boeheim argued on Thursday afternoon that college basketball players don’t care about distractions; players just want to play, the Syracuse coach said.

He was talking about his own team, which has rolled along despite a police investigation into alleged child abuse by a former Syracuse associate head coach, and an NCAA investigation into Cuse's drug-testing policy.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesSyracuse coach Jim Boeheim says his team has not been distracted by issues off the court.
He could have been talking about all the teams in the Big East tournament semifinals.

Notre Dame lost Tim Abromaitis early to knee injury, a loss that coach Mike Brey admitted at least stunned the Irish early on. And then the Irish shook it off, grabbed the ball and rolled along.

Louisville doubled as a MASH unit, with more players in the training room than on the practice floor. The incomplete and ever-changing lineups meant the Cards took some lumps along the way. Yet here they are.

And then there is Cincinnati, one half of the brawl with Xavier that stained the game and both proud schools. Some wondered if the Bearcats would recover. Instead that embarrassing fight became the team’s turning point.

Now it is March and it is simply about basketball for everyone.

The question isn’t how will you deal. It’s who wants it.


What to watch

The Bearcats at the 3-point line: In the regular season, Cincinnati hopped all over the Orange by draining four quick 3-pointers to build an early lead. Syracuse ultimately won, but that 3-point barrage kept the game tight.

The guards: There are an awful lot of good ones in this game -- Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Dion Waiters and Michael Carter-Williams for Syracuse. Dion Dixon, Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick for Cincinnati. Syracuse’s backcourt has to take care of the basketball as it has all season -- the Orange had only four turnovers against Connecticut on Thursday -- and the Bearcats need their guards to crack the Orange’s zone.

Who to watch

Yancy Gates: The Cincinnati big man had a terrific game against Georgetown in the quarterfinals, helping the Bearcats come back to beat the Hoyas. He was equally effective against Syracuse in the regular season, scoring 16. The caveat: The Orange were without Fab Melo. Gates needs to be tough, especially on the boards, which is Syracuse’s one Achilles heel, for Cincinnati to win.

What’s at stake

The Orange could walk off the court and still claim the No. 1 seed on Sunday. Cincinnati, making its first Big East tournament semifinal appearance, is playing to up its slot on Selection Sunday.

Louisville-Notre Dame

What to watch

The pace: Notre Dame will want to slow it down, and Louisville will want to go. If the Cardinals can somehow push the Irish out of their comfort zone -- which coach Rick Pitino doesn’t necessarily expect -- it’s a huge advantage for Louisville.
The scoreboard: First, to see if it moves. Though the Cardinals prefer to push tempo, they aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. The game against Marquette was more exception than rule. They don’t score a lot of points, nor do the Irish. Second, to see how many overtimes it goes. These teams have played at least one extra stanza in their past four meetings, and six of the past nine.

Who to watch

Peyton Siva: The Louisville point guard did not play well against the Irish in the regular season; he was a nonfactor with only eight points. He’s been sensational in the Big East tournament. In two games, Siva has 32 points, 10 steals and nine assists, and he has played 70 of a possible 80 minutes.

What’s at stake

The Irish have never played for the Big East tournament title, going 0-for-4 in semifinal games -- including last year, when Louisville upset the favored Irish. Louisville, meantime, has played for the title three times since joining the league.
NEW YORK – Somewhere in Philadelphia, Bruiser Flint should be crafting his argument:

"The Top 100 Reasons Why My Team Deserves To Be in the NCAA Tournament."

South Florida provided 99 for the Drexel coach.

The Bulls, fighting to prove why they belonged in the bracket, instead gave the selection committee a litany of reasons for why they didn’t.

Forget the RPI and the 1-9 record against RPI top-50 teams. Forget the unbalanced schedule that worked against the Bulls in terms of SOS.

Just go to the eye test and watch the final few minutes of regulation and the extra period in their 57-53 overtime loss to Notre Dame. The federal government could put it on a loop to force bad guys to confess.

It was equal parts painful and foolish, a one-two self-inflicted punch that could prove to be a knockout.

Missed layups, missed front ends of one-and-ones, turnovers, dribbling aimlessly for 23 of the final 25 seconds with a four-point deficit and throwing the ball out of bounds on a last-ditch attempt to win it.

How did USF blow it? Let us count the ways.

And the Bulls blew it on a bubblicious night when Texas and Cal likely played their way in with wins and North Carolina State and Colorado State at least played their way into the discussion.

Instead, USF joined Washington, Northwestern and Mississippi State in the losers’ bracket of teams that will spend an uncomfortable Sunday evening.

[+] EnlargeStan Heath
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireStan Heath's USF squad will be biting its nails ahead of Selection Sunday after an ugly loss.
Of course, beauty or ugliness, as Stan Heath said, is in the eye of the beholder -- and when the USF coach gazed upon the mess, he saw a masterpiece.

“Hopefully we erased any doubt of what kind of basketball team we are,’’ he said. “We belong. We definitely belong. Giving that kind of effort on the defensive end, you have to really appreciate when you have teams that sacrifice themselves on the defensive end. People on the outside, the casual observer, don’t know how difficult that is, don’t understand that. Teams like us not only get in, they win and advance.’’

Heath’s assessment of his defense is fair. The Bulls do play hard and they challenge shots, using their size inside to make everything difficult. In one ridiculous effort, Gus Gilchrist managed to block Jerian Grant despite falling backward and out of bounds.

But this wasn’t about the defense making things ugly. Good defense should be lauded.

This is about the offense making things uglier.

As active and disruptive as the Bulls’ defense is, their offense is that lackluster. It is like watching chess, with players just standing around like statues.

South Florida led by three with 2:45 to play in a game when three points might as well have been 300, and lost. Frankly, it lost multiple times.

First, when with 33 seconds to play and USF up 45-44, Jawanza Poland got out on the break with absolutely no one but a row of cheerleaders near him and the basket ... and missed a layup.

“He should have finished that layup,’’ Heath said. “He’s point-blank, all by himself. He makes it and the game is over. It’s done.’’

Second, when Poland, strangely fouled by Scott Martin after that miss, clanked the front end of a one-and-one.

Third, when Poland made the worst 33 seconds of his life even worse, fouled Pat Connaughton.

Because the Irish were every bit as culpable in this disaster, Connaughton naturally missed one of two free throws to tie it with 26 seconds left.

“That was unusual,’’ Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said with a chuckle. “We threw a bomb to Pat and he got fouled. I thought, this is getting wild.’’

Ah, but there were five more minutes of wild to come. Notre Dame edged out to a four-point lead when Eric Atkins, without a field goal in the entire game, drained a 3-pointer with 30 seconds to play.

USF got the ball back and point guard Anthony Collins showed all the urgency of a senior citizen on a freeway.

It would have been a comedy of errors if weren’t so hard to understand and if the potential ramifications weren’t so bad.

“I’ll be honest, I won’t sleep,’’ Heath said. “You want to hear your name called on Sunday at 6 o’clock. I think we’ve done a great job by putting ourselves in a great position. I think our team is worthy. But there’s some people that have a lot of information that make wise decisions and we’ll let our case rest with them.’’

There is no shame in losing to Notre Dame. The Irish are a very good team, owners of a 22-10 record now and a legit top Big East squad.

And Heath should be commended for what he’s done. He has retooled a team that won 10 games all of last season into one that won 12 in the Big East alone this season.

But at this time of year it is not enough to talk about what you’ve done. You have to compare your results and your game to others.

You have to look like an NCAA tournament team -- and in its last game before Selection Sunday, USF didn’t.
Overview: Notre Dame is in the Big East tournament semifinals -- and the Fighting Irish are awfully fortunate to be there.

No. 6 seed South Florida had No. 3-seed Notre Dame on the ropes in the final minute of regulation Thursday night, but made several critical mistakes that allowed the game to go into overtime (see more below). And the Irish took care of business from there, winning 57-53.

Notre DameSouth FloridaIt's a crushing loss for South Florida (20-13), which was looking to go to the Big East semis for the very first time. It also means the Bulls' NCAA tournament status is very much up in the air -- a win against Notre Dame (22-10) would have essentially sealed a bid to the Big Dance.

Turning point: The first half was a strange one. South Florida hit eight of its first 10 shots, opening up a 20-8 lead -- but then went into a nine-minute, 12-second drought, during which it fell behind 26-20. The Bulls closed to within 28-26 at intermission.

The game remained tight throughout the second half, and then things went haywire in the final minute. First Victor Rudd turned the ball over with 40 seconds left and the Bulls up 45-42, which led to two Notre Dame free throws. Then the Bulls inbounded the ball, broke the press and found Jawanza Poland for a wide-open layup -- but he missed it.

Poland was fouled in the scramble for the ball, went to the foul line -- and missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Then Poland tried to intercept a pass on defense and was whistled for a foul -- Pat Connaughton made one of two free throws, and we ended up in overtime.

The big play in OT was a trey by Eric Atkins -- who didn't score a single point in regulation -- that pushed Notre Dame's lead from 51-50 to 54-50 with 30 seconds remaining. South Florida's Toarlyn Fitzpatrick hit a 3-pointer with three seconds left to make it 54-53, then Notre Dame was fouled and hit one of two free throws. And on South Florida's last-ditch chance to tie or win the game, having to go the length of the floor with one second left, the Bulls threw the ball out of bounds. A perfect ending.

Key player: Notre Dame had three players in double figures, but the biggest player of the night was Atkins. The sophomore guard averages 12.4 points per game, but had a goose egg for 40 minutes, and it's tough to stay in a game mentally when you haven't broken through on the scoreboard for that long. But he finally got his chance in overtime, and he delivered when it counted most. Atkins had six points in overtime, and also had six assists in the game.

Rudd had 16 points to lead South Florida.

Key stat: Notre Dame outscored South Florida at the foul line, 13 to 3. South Florida shot just five free throws on the night.

Miscellaneous: South Florida point guard Anthony Collins suffered a finger injury on his left hand late in the second half, and sounded like he was in intense pain. He did return to the game with his fingers taped, but that's something to keep an eye on with USF going forward.

What's next: Notre Dame will play No. 7 seed Louisville in Friday night's second Big East semifinal, which should tip at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET. The two teams met once in the regular season, and it was a thriller -- a 67-65 Notre Dame win in double overtime at Louisville.

For South Florida, it's nervous time, until Selection Sunday rolls around and the Bulls see if their name is called.

Video: Louisville coach Rick Pitino

March, 8, 2012

Dana O'Neil caught up with Louisville's Rick Pitino after the seventh-seeded Cardinals beat 2-seed Marquette 84-71 Thursday night.

Overview: Louisville has crashed the party and joined the Big East Final Four.

The No. 7-seeded Cardinals upset No. 2 seed Marquette on Thursday night, advancing to the Big East tournament semifinals.

MarquetteLouisvilleThe Golden Eagles (25-7), who finished 14-4 in the Big East during the regular season -- their most-ever wins in the conference -- leave New York without a single victory. It's the first time since 2006 -- its inaugural season in the Big East -- that Marquette did not win a game in the tournament.

Turning point: Louisville looked like an entirely different team in the early going than the one that defeated Seton Hall Wednesday night. After scoring 23 in the first 20 minutes against the Pirates, the Cardinals erupted for 50 tonight, leading 50-40 at the break.

Marquette had cut it to 54-50 with 13:29 remaining in the game, when a key sequence occurred. First, Jae Crowder -- the Big East Player of the Year -- picked up his fourth foul with 12:39 left, and exited the game. Soon after, a Peyton Siva offensive rebound led to a Kyle Kuric 3-point attempt, which he buried to make it 57-50. The momentum seemed to have swung back Louisville's way again at that point, and Marquette never got closer than seven the rest of the way.

Key player: For the second night in a row, Siva seemed to be everywhere, and in the middle of everything. The 6-foot junior point guard finished with 18 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals -- a tremendous performance.

Kuric had a team-high 20 points for Louisville. Darius Johnson-Odom had 23 points to lead Marquette.

Key stat: Twenty-six -- that's how many turnovers Marquette committed tonight. Louisville's pressure defense is tough, but the Golden Eagles have some pretty good ball-handlers. Hard to win a game against anybody with that many TO's.

Miscellaneous: Hope you enjoyed those neon orange Louisville uniforms, because you'll be seeing them again on Friday, since the Cardinals are guaranteed to be the lower seed.

What's next: Louisville will play the winner of No. 3 seed Notre Dame versus No. 6 seed South Floria, Friday at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET.

Marquette heads back to Wisconsin to regroup -- the Golden Eagles should still receive a pretty high seed in the Big Dance.

NEW YORK -- Yancy Gates knew what was coming. In a few hours, maybe less, the adrenaline would wear off, the ice wrapped around his knee would be discarded, and then there it would be, the memories of going one-on-one with Henry Sims for 50 minutes.

“Yeah, I’ll more than likely be a little stiff,” the Cincinnati senior said, smiling.

It will be the best pain Gates has felt.

Four years ago the Cincinnati-born player signed with his hometown team, dreaming of bringing the Bearcats back to national prominence.

Most people might have thought he did that a year ago, when Cincinnati earned its way back to the NCAA tournament.

Not Gates and not his coach. Here, at least the measure of a man and more the barometer for a team is not just becoming one of the final 68 invited to play.

It’s sticking around in New York.

Cincinnati is now on its longest March vacation in the Big Apple, beating Georgetown 72-70 in double overtime to advance to the Big East tournament semifinals for the first time in school history.

The Bearcats will play top-seeded Syracuse at 7 Friday night.

“Every team in the Big East, they don’t even think about the NCAA tournament when the Big East tournament [starts],” Gates said. “The Big East is so tough, so competitive. It’s just fun overall, and it’s a great experience. So every team comes with that mindset of trying to make it to the last game.”

There was, of course, a time when Gates thought his last game might have come a lot sooner. The central figure in the brawl against Xavier, he was held up to public flogging for his behavior and suspended six games, although plenty thought he deserved more.

[+] EnlargeYancy Gates
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesCincinnati forward Yancy Gates finished with 23 points and eight rebounds against Georgetown.
Gates apologized in word immediately and in his actions since, stoically going about his business, trying to play the physical game of a big man without raising an eyebrow.

He has been this season as he has been for much of his career -- occasionally powerful and occasionally underwhelming.

“He’s been called upon to do a lot, too much really, in rebuilding our program," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “It was really unfair. He’s been through a lot. So for me, two things: I’m happy for him, but also as a coach, it’s great when you know you’ve got a horse, and you get him the ball and he’s delivering."

There were two horses in this game, Gates and Sims, two big men playing an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better game for 50 minutes. Gates finished with 23 points and eight rebounds, his yeoman’s efforts helping the Bearcats erase an 11-point deficit with nine minutes to play.

Sims ended up with 22 and 15, including a pretty drive to the bucket to force the second overtime.

“He not only can score, he’s like their point guard," Gates said of Sims.

Sims tried to send it to a third extra period, but his jumper at the top of the key missed to the left, sending the Hoyas home and the Bearcats on.

Only six conference schools have never played for, let alone won, a Big East title. Cincinnati would like to shrink the number.

“That would mean a lot, especially it being my senior year," Gates said. “For Coach, for rebuilding the program. What better way to rebuild the program than to win the Big East tournament championship?"
NEW YORK -- The Big East Conference hasn't decided whether it will include Connecticut in next year's basketball tournament or if the Huskies will have to stay home because of their Academic Progress Rates penalty.

The NCAA has banned the Huskies from the NCAA tournament next year due to its failing APR score, which puts the league in a quandary.

The Big East tournament winner receives the conference's automatic bid, and while this isn't a one-bid league, does the conference want to run the risk of rewarding its trophy to a team that can't continue forward?

Associate commissioner John Paquette said that before deciding what to do about Connecticut, the league has to create a conference-wide policy.

The problem, Paquette explained, is that a policy will have to incorporate all sports and not all sports run their conference postseasons the same way.

In basketball, for example, every team qualifies, but in others, only the top eight make the conference tournament.

The Big East hopes to have both a plan in place and an answer for UConn in the near future.
Overview: Our first game of the day, between Syracuse and UConn, was going to be tough to beat

But this one did it.

GeorgetownCincinnatiCincinnati, the No. 4 seed, ousted No. 5 seed Georgetown 72-70 in double overtime -- a game that was ugly for most of regulation, but then thrilling in the final minutes and the extra periods.

The Bearcats (23-9) advance to the Big East semifinals, while the Hoyas (24-7) go home with just one win in this tournament. Both teams' spots in the NCAA tournament are already secure.

Turning points: Too many to count. Georgetown led 30-24 at the half, and the second half went back and forth. Georgetown increased its lead to nine, 36-27; Cincinnati closed to 36-35. Georgetown went up 49-38; Cincinnati cut it to 52-51, and then went ahead 53-52 on a Yancy Gates tip-in with 37 seconds left. But with the score 54-52, Georgetown freshman Otto Porter connected on a short jumper with 3.6 seconds left to tie the game, and we ended up in overtime.

In the first overtime, Georgetown had the ball trailing 64-62 with 12.9 seconds left coming out of a timeout, but was struggling to find a good look. With the clock winding down, center Henry Sims drove down the lane from the top of the key and laid it in at the buzzer -- a beautiful move, especially for a big man -- to tie the score at 64.

In the second overtime, with the score knotted at 70, Cincinnati's Cashmere Wright drove the lane and banked it in to make it 72-70 with 7.6 seconds left. After a timeout, Georgetown went the length of the floor and tried to make magic one more time -- but Sims' jumper from the top of the key was off the mark.

Key player: Gates came alive for the Bearcats in the second half and the two overtimes, finishing with 23 points and eight rebounds. He scored 10 of Cincinnati's final 11 points in regulation.

For Georgetown, Sims has nothing to hang his head about. The senior, who had 20 points and 13 rebounds against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, followed up that performance with 22 points and 15 rebounds on Thursday.

Key stat: Georgetown shot just 8-for-15 from the foul line -- a couple more made free throws could have made all the difference.

Amazingly, Cincinnati shot just 2-for-21 from 3-point range, yet pulled out a victory.

What's next: Syracuse and Cincinnati will tangle at 7 p.m. ET Friday. The teams played once during the regular season -- a 60-53 Syracuse win in Cincinnati. The Orange were without starting center Fab Melo.

Georgetown returns home and gets ready for Selection Sunday.