Originally Published: March 16, 2013

Louisville Shows It's The Nation's Best

By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

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NEW YORK -- Rick Pitino made the decision not to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden, even though they were pretty nifty souvenirs -- the last nets from the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.

He told his Louisville team after it played team swap with Syracuse, turning a 16-point deficit into a 78-61 rout, that he didn't think it needed to. The Cardinals cut them down last year, after all, when they also won the Big East tournament.

Pitino was careful as he explained his reasoning, starting, stopping and choosing his words deliberately so as to relay the sentiment without sounding overly cocky about it.

"I told them, look, there are no guarantees. We could lose in the first round," Pitino said. "But let's see if we can't do something special. If it happens, it happens. If not, we haven't missed too much."

There is no need for such political correctness.

At a hotel bunker in Indianapolis on Sunday, the NCAA tournament selection committee will meet to parse through the carcass and attempt to put order in the form of a bracket to the runaway train that has been the 2012-13 college basketball season.

Rick Pitino
Tony Spinelli/ESPNRick Pitino was fired up for the Big East finale at the Garden.

Four teams will emerge as the favorites to win the championship because the process demands that there be four No. 1 seeds. Someone -- maybe Louisville, maybe Indiana -- will be dubbed the overall No. 1, given the slightest edge over its peers.

I'd like to save the committee some time and hard work and I'd like to say what Pitino could not.

There is one best team in the country right now and it is the University of Louisville.

"Hmmm, we're for real, and we're tough to beat if we play well,'' Russ Smith said. "But I don't know about the rest.''

This season has been about as crystal clear as a Rorschach test -- where one person sees a squirrel, the other sees a unicorn driving a tractor.

And fittingly -- or perhaps fitfully -- Championship Week has been equally squirrely.

Indiana lost to Wisconsin. Duke lost to Maryland. Ole Miss was good as dead and is now playing for the SEC title.

For heaven's sake, the MEAC kicked all four of its top seeds out of the tournament in one day.

Out of the rubble emerges Louisville, a team ranked No. 2 in the preseason that has lost five games since, all to likely NCAA tournament teams.

Its "worst" loss is to Villanova. Its second worst is to Notre Dame. In five overtimes. It lost to Duke by five, but that was without Gorgui Dieng. In the nonconference season, the Cardinals played Duke, Missouri and Kentucky (back when that meant something).

But forget all of that. Forget nitty-gritty reports and RPI, BPI, EKG and the KGB.

Look at what the Cardinals did last night.

They were down 16 points and went on a … well, I'm not sure what they went on.

Typically you'd call it a 44-10 run but that doesn't seem quite powerful enough.

Tidal wave? No.

Black-hole-like inhaling? Yes, maybe that will do.

From the 15:51 mark of the second half to the final buzzer, Syracuse connected on exactly one field goal.

Asked if in all his years he'd ever seen anything quite like that, Pitino laughed.

Montrezl Harrell
Tony Spinelli/ESPNMontrezl Harrell was a force for the Cardinals.

"No, not really," he said.

Who in their right mind has? That just doesn't happen, rarely anywhere, and certainly not against good teams, not in the championship of a good league.

"There are really no words for it," Smith said.

The Cardinals went from flat and disinterested to full onslaught in the snap of a finger.

In the first 19 minutes he played, Michael Carter-Williams had six assists and zero turnovers. In the next 17, he had three assists and four turnovers. His teammates didn't fare any better. Brandon Triche coughed the ball up seven times, the Orange 20 altogether.

And for much of it, he was guarded and trapped by Luke Hancock. Here's what Pitino had to say about Hancock the night before:

"When I asked Jim Larranaga, I said, tell me about Luke," Pitino said about the George Mason transfer. "If you need someone to take something under pressure, he's your man. If you need someone to take a shot at the end of the game, he's your man. If you need someone to grab a rebound, he's your man. I said, what about defense? He said, he's not your man. But he's really improved his defense. It's come a long way."

It is easy to look good when Louisville's defense gets going because it is like an all-consuming monster, swallowing up everything, including an opponent's psyche.

Syracuse finished with 20 turnovers but its inability to score ought to have counted for 10 more.

"They're the best pressing team we've faced all year," Jim Boeheim said.

What the defense didn't do, Montrezl Harrell did. The freshman finished with 20 points and seven rebounds. He played as mean and nasty as the Cardinals' defense, at times ripping rebounds out of Syracuse players' hands.

If the Orange had lunch money in their shorts, he probably would have taken that, too.

And he did it from the bench, giving what had been a stagnant Louisville offense a rocket launcher of a boost.

"I came in the game just being prepared for whatever coach needed me to do," Harrell said. "When I got on the floor, I just wanted to help the guys with a big lift. I was going all over the place, trying to get rebounds, either offense or defense. These guys looked for me and I just tried to finish for them."

This week in New York has been all about sentiment and nostalgia, with the last run of this grand tournament.

Boeheim didn't get the finish he wanted. Instead of a celebratory walk off the court, he spent the better part of the last minute sitting on the bench, his chin resting on his hand. He dodged questions about what it all meant, in less of a reflective mood than he'd been after his earlier victories.

Pitino reminisced and he enjoyed it all, talking about Dave Gavitt, New York and the Garden with proper reverence.

But in its final iteration, the Big East didn't really change its script much. For 34 years, this league has been about great teams, sometimes the hottest and sometimes -- often time -- simply the best.

That's what the finale brought us, too.

After a season of madness predating March, we, finally, on March 17 have a clear-cut favorite:

And it's Louisville and soon it might just have the nets to prove it.

A Look Around Champ Week: Title Games

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Kansas State Wildcats

54
FINAL
70
Kansas Jayhawks


MVP: If just one player, it would have to be Jeff Withey, who tallied 19 points and 9 rebounds and was his usual defensive wall in the lane. But credit also goes to freshman Perry Ellis, who contributed 12 points and 6 rebounds in just 13 minutes off the bench.

X factor: The Wildcats simply couldn't shoot. They were 21-of-60 overall (35 percent), 6-of-24 from deep (25 percent) and 6-of-12 (50 percent) from the charity stripe. Not good enough.

That was...predictable: Give all the credit in the world to K-State, which won a share of its first league title since 1977 under first-year coach Bruce Weber. But the Cats just aren't on the same level as KU this season. No matter what the standings say, 3-0 is 3-0.

-- Brett Edgerton