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Louisville looks Final Four-ready as it turns out the lights on Big East

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Louisville won its second straight Big Eest tourney title. It will be a No. 1 seed. (AP)

NEW YORK -- Louisville really knows when to leave a party and how to turn out the lights.

Saturday night marked the end of the ... oh, you know it already. Let's not keep going on and on with this thing. Point is, four times in the past 40 years, the Cardinals have left their league for new land. Each time that they've upgraded, the team has finished atop the regular-season standings in their final year and, in the three cases in which league tournaments were played, the Cardinals won that, too.

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Rick Pitino's team got back-to-back Big East championships by way of a ferocious comeback Saturday night, erasing a 16-point deficit to Syracuse to win by 17, 78-61, and heat-seek into the NCAA tournament as a surefire No. 1 seed -- maybe even the No. 1 overall seed. Fifty-six of the Cards' points came in the final 20 minutes. Watching them, it was impossible not to entertain thoughts of seeing this group again in three weeks, in Atlanta.

Senior point guard Peyton Siva was named the tournament MVP, just as he was last year. In earning the honor, Siva joined Patrick Ewing as the only Big East players to claim the award twice. Pitino was charmed by the entire week. He spoke of his relationship with these players -- something that he has done often in the past three years -- and how they've made him a happier man.

The Garden was juiced with plenty of Orange. I'd estimate at least 75 percent of the building to root on Jim Boeheim's conference swan song. That's part of what made Louisville's comeback so impressive -- and scary.

"This was a road game tonight," Pitino said. "I was trying to find red."

You watch this team and think: How is it not the favorite to win it all? Don't call it recency bias, either. Call it pragmatism. Call it wins in 13 of their last 14, the only loss coming in South Bend and requiring five overtimes to reach a verdict. Call it Gorgui Dieng's interior presence and Russ Smith's defense and Kevin Ware's emergence and Montrezl (the silent "L" stands for lethal!) Harrell's coming-out party. Call it Louisville having the No. 1 defense in the country for most of the season, that defense operating out of a press that's better than anyone's. Anyone's.

You know we forgot about Louisville for a little bit, right? This team started 16-1, dropped three straight and suddenly were just another team in the top of the rankings that couldn't keep a grip. But is there any doubt now to how balanced and dangerous this group is? You have Dieng dropping behind-the-back dimes, and suddenly it's a different deal here, people. A deep dynamo hitting top gear as the apex comes near.

It used last year's Big East tournament to springboard to the Final Four. The numbers and eyes show this team is better. This team has an offense. It has a more-reeled-in Smith, who still has his (bad/funny/agog) moments. It has weapons laying on top of other weapons. Pitino has said the only group that he has ever felt truly Final Four-confident with was the '96 Kentucky team. He's still saying this team can be beat. But with plenty of other top teams taking hits in the past two weeks, why not believe in Louisville's championship caliber?

The Cardinals are doing it the way that college basketball teams used to do it. Keeping guys for more years, growing and getting better. This team looks familiar. It feels more complete than any other in college hoops.

I found it refreshing that, although there were some mandatory last respects paid to MSG and the Big East, both Pitino and Boeheim found more reason to discuss the game, their teams, their upcoming weeks. It's time to move on. Boeheim was asked what his thoughts were as he walked off the Garden's floor.

"Just how badly we handled their pressure was the only thing I was thinking about, and we've got to get ready and get to the airport," he said. "Those were the two thoughts I had. All of the other stuff I've been thinking about for two years, and I've said it all. I'm not going to repeat it all again tonight."

Orange has no rhyme and, at the Garden, it will have no substitute. But Boeheim's done with all this. Syracuse is still a team capable of going to Final Four, and he's right: the proceedings on the Big East's walking funeral were way past the deadline. Pitino did give tribute to the man responsible for the past 34 years of what all this was for.

"I thought of Dave Gavitt and what he formed, and all of us in some way or another flourished because of Dave Gavitt," Pitino said. "This was a special, special night."

Not special enough to break out a ladder, though. Louisville spent more than 20 minutes on the Garden floor, celebrating and receiving awards. But nobody took a step off the ground unless it was on the podium. The nets are still hanging on the rims in the arena.

"We had four goals," the coach said. "One was to win regular season. ... Two was to win the championship. Three was to get a very high seed. And four was to win a national championship. Now, we don't presume at all that we can get there; we just wanted to savor, if we ever do get there, that one moment."

Turn out the Garden lights, and flip the switch on the biggest ones of all. Pitino's team is as ready and good as anyone else for the next three weeks. And if it does win it all, that's the best ending the Big East could ask for.


For more college basketball news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnCBB on Twitter, like us on Facebook and subscribe to the thrice-a-week podcast on iTunes. You can follow Matt Norlander on Twitter here: @MattNorlander.

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