For years, I’ve said that the Big East Tournament makes up my five favorite days of the basketball year. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the NCAA tournament or the NBA Playoffs, but to me, it doesn’t get better than many of the best teams in the college playing in the biggest city in the country in the World’s Most Famous Arena. Thursday’s games were just more testimony to my already strong beliefs. Here’s how it all went down…
Game 1: Pitt vs. UConn
Kemba Walker said he knew Gary McGhee couldn’t guard him. Cocky? Perhaps. But it is that swagger and that bravado that makes Walker the electrifying player he is. With four seconds left, Walker caught the 6-11 McGhee with an in-and-out and then stepped back for a jumper that tore through the nets as the horn sounded to give UConn a 76-74 win that ripped the hearts out of the large Pitt contingent in attendance for the matinee affair. “Everybody else knows I’m gonna take that shot, so it just helps knowing that they have confidence in me,” Walker said after the game in reference to his teammates. Walker has cooled down since conference play hit in early January, but he has been in mint condition through three Big East Tournament games thus far. In the opening round against DePaul, he went for 26 on 8-of-15 shooting, and dropped 28 on a Georgetown Wednesday. Sure Ben Hansbrough won Big East Player of the Year, and it was hard to argue against the Notre Dame sharpshooter, but there’s no way he’s a better basketball player than Kemba Walker.
Game 2: Syracuse vs. St. John’s
St. John’s was nearly invincible at the Garden this season, pummeling Notre Dame, Pitt, Duke, Georgetown and UConn, among others, en route to posting a 7-1 record. The one blip on the radar? Syracuse. The Orange’s 2-3 zone was a major challenge for the Johnnies when the teams matched up in January, as Steve Lavin‘s team struggled to knock down perimeter shots and to convert in the lane against the NBA-like front line of Fab Melo, Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph. On Thursday, the Red Storm looked significantly better, shooting over 47 percent for the game, but it failed to get the timely stops it needed against the Orange. With Syracuse leading 72-70 with 32 seconds left, guard Brandon Triche found Melo underneath the basket for a reverse layup to make it a two-possession game. St. John’s did not convert on the either end, and Syracuse converted some free throws to put it out of reach. Triche led five players in double figures with 22 points, while Dwight Hardy poured in 22 for St. John’s.
Game 3: Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati
Don’t look now, but Notre Dame is a serious contender for a No. 1 seed come Sunday. The Irish easily defeated Cincinnati in a Big East quarterfinal Thursday night, and the tournament seems to really have opened up for them following Pitt’s early exit in the afternoon session. “We talked about coming here and getting our program to Saturday night, somewhere we’ve never been,” said Coach Mike Brey, referring to championship night. “Very strong resume for it absolutely.” It’s hard to believe a team can get better after losing one of its best players of all time, Luke Harangody, to graduation, but Notre Dame seems to have done just that. This year’s squad is far-more balanced and features two of the best shooters in the country, Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis. Hansbrough is a gritty player fifth-year senior who is pure from deep, but can also mix it up with a variety of dribble moves and a dangerous spin. Abromaitis is a 6-9 shooter from Connecticut who connected on 42 percent of his 3s this year. Throw in another long-distance threat in Carleton Scott and a do-it-all forward in Tyrone Nash and you’ve got a team that could be playing into April…
Game 4: Louisville vs. Marquette
Marquette had already played two games in two days, including an emotional win over West Virginia on Wednesday that put to rest any doubts that the Golden Eagles might not make the tournament. Its luck came to an end though Thursday night against a better-shooting, more-athletic Louisville team that got 22 points from Mike Marra and 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists from Preston Knowles in an 81-56 shellacking. “We played great defense tonight and highly, highly intelligent offense tonight, sharing the ball,” Coach Rick Pitino said after the game. The Louisville-Notre Dame match up Friday night is intriguing. Both are good jump-shooting teams that hoist a lot of attempts from the corners, and neither has a stable inside presence. Curious to see how this one plays out, but it’s tough to pick against Mike Brey‘s club at this point…
What do you think? Who’s going to win the tourney?