Tag:Big East tournament
Posted on: March 13, 2011 1:05 am
Edited on: March 13, 2011 12:33 pm
 

With 2011 Big East title, UConn makes history



NEW YORK — I’m fairly certain it’s tougher to win five games in five days than to beat a team three times in one season.

Doesn’t much matter what got it through five games in five days, though, or how tough it is. When it’s over, and you’ve done it, then you’ve done it. Ninth-seeded Connecticut made history Saturday night, defeating No. 3 Louisville, 69-66, to earn their seventh Big East tournament championship and, most likely, a three seed in the NCAA tournament.

So how impressive is what UConn just did? Well, if you want to measure this in terms of conversational and referential shelf life, I can promise you: people will talk about the Huskies winning five games in five days for decades. It’s as impressive an accomplishment as any player or team has ever done in this or any other conference tournament before.

The only-can-happen-in-the-Big-East nature of the achievement adds to its legacy and likelihood that it won’t be duplicated any time soon — especially if the conference gets rid of the double-bye. (And let’s hope that does happen. As good as this was, no team should be forced to play Tuesday through Saturday to earn a trophy.)

Once he settled into his chair at the postgame press conference, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun wasted no time in reflecting on the moment, the week, all it led up to and said what it meant to him.

“In 1990, couple years after I came to UConn, we were fortunate enough to have a terrific team and won a Big East championship back to back — that sounds so nice — against Syracuse and Georgetown,” Calhoun said. “That was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had in any kind of Big East play. This ranks right there with that. …. What these kids have accomplished during this week has been as moving for me as anything I can possibly think of.”

Afterward, the man of the hour, week, month and season in the Nutmeg State, Kemba Walker, he had an admission to make. Something he needed to get off his chest.

“Now that the tournament’s over I can definitely tell you that I was tired,” he said. “With about two minutes left I was gassed.”

They all were. Even the media was. Five days is just too many. Calhoun said, by the third day, it was a routine, the kind that there average Joe who works a 9-to-5 slugs out. It’s not that he and his guys didn’t want to play — it’s that it felt like a job that needed to get accomplished. As his team won more games, Calhoun heard the volume turned up about how no one had ever won five in five.

“It kind of gave you a feeling like it wasn’t going to happen,” Calhoun said.

The 68-year-old coach only brought four suits to New York. He doubled up Saturday night by wearing the same threads he donned when Walker gave the tournament its most memorable moment, that buzzer-beating, ankle-breaking jumper against Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals.

“The significant in college basketball … will hit me, because I’m a great historian about the game. I love the game,” Calhoun said.  “I’m caught up on the emotion in what happened here,” Calhoun said. “I think the past four days, and tonight, to show the kind of grit that we had.”

Is it a bit insufferable that I’m waxing so poetic about this accomplishment? If you’re scoffing at the Connecticut love, then I implore you to consider that UConn is such a big deal because it outshined the tremendous, tight play in the Big East tournament (seven of the 15 games were decided by three or less, or went into overtime) and the team is one of the premier talking points in what many are now calling one of the greatest weeks of conference-tournament play in college basketball history.

And this is a team that wasn’t thought to be NCAA-caliber five months ago. And one that was doubted a few weeks ago, when it lost four of its last five games to finish its season.

And the best thing about this for the Huskies — despite all that physical wear and tear, they got their gait back. As they were in the beginning of the season, Connecticut is a feared team considered among the best in college basketball. Whatever it does in the tournament is gravy, really. Yeah, a first-round loss would be an upset, but years from now, all anyone’s going to talk about is the Big East title run.

Anything short of a Final Four won’t overshadow what happened in Manhattan this week. But now, after all the players and coaches have gotten their rest, the mindset has to shift.

“I will tell you this much, and I guess because of me coming up in a different sort of way, underdog is not as difficult as front-runner,” Calhoun said. “In the NCAA tournament we’ll be the favorite again. We’ve got to handle that — not that I’m worried — I’m just saying, I thought this week we were able to get the kids — it’s always my desire — to get a little chip on our shoulder.”

Maybe Connecticut loses in the first round Thursday or Friday. (The Selection Committee would be wise to let this team rest until Friday.) Maybe they make a run to the Sweet. Or the Final Four. No matter what happens, though, this team will be remembered, largely, for its unprecedented Big East run. Short of an NCAA title, it doesn’t get more prestigious than that.

Posted by Matt Norlander

Photo: AP



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Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 11, 2011 11:13 pm
Edited on: March 11, 2011 11:25 pm
 

Walker's Big East legacy now cemented, iconic

Posted by Matt Norlander

NEW YORK — The championship game’s still to come, but why wait another 24 hours to state what’s true now? Kemba Walker is a Big East tournament legend. Icon. Bar-raiser. He’s approaching the title of mythical figure as the hours pass, it seems. These terms are relative to UConn fans, of course, who hold Walker as close to their heart as any player in program history.

That’s because he’s so vital to UConn continuing to play basketball late into March. To chasing a Final Four, which was a laughable notion at the start of this season. But the statistics alone prove Walker’s Big East tournament legacy — forget about his Connecticut one; that was etched months ago — secured. Most points in a Big East tournament, now that honor belongs to Walker, who’s put up 111 points in four games.

He demolished the standing record: Eric Devendorf’s 84 in 2009. Walker’s 111 is so efficient that it’s precedent-setting. His triple-ones aren’t just best in Big East history — they blow by any single-tournament scoring record in every conference’s record book. (Yeah, have to note this: Jimmer Fredette seems determined to challenge Walker, as he lit up New Mexico for 52 in BYU’s Mountain West semifinal.)

“The most valuable player in America, bar none, not even close,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. “Tell me the other guys who are getting 12 rebounds, six steals, assists, etc. It’s one of the great performances, certainly a player of mine, but I’ve never seen a guard dominate a game, inside and out.”

Since the five-games-in-five-days format is still a new one in the Big East tournament (and doesn't exist anywhere else), tomorrow’s numbers could be tagged with an asterisk, if you really wanted to be litigious.

Makes no difference. Walker’s lugged this team to a top-four seed, maybe better (definitely better if he and the Huskies win a Big East title), in the NCAAs and put himself amongst the names of the all-time Big East regular-season and tournament greats.

Big East basketball in Madison Square Garden in March is memorable in 2011 because of Kemba Walker. That's the basis here.

The last time a player had a run like this was Gerry McNamara, who fueled and fire and fought Syracuse to a Big East championship in 2006. He’s as revered at Syracuse as Walker will be five, 10, 15 years from now.

Friday night, in UConn’s 76-71 overtime win against Syracuse, Walker didn’t make any game-winning shots, but he did go for 33 points, 12 rebounds, 6 steals and 5 assists in the Big East semifinal. And as nice as those stats look, hitting a game-winning shot against the top-seeded team (Pitt), then beating your greatest rival a night later, and in overtime, exorcising extra-session demons in the process, that’s the big stuff. Remember (how could you forget?) that this win was some redemption for Connecticut, which slogged through six overtimes two years ago, only to come up short, falling 127-117.

“I don’t want to go into another six overtimes — know that,” Walker said. “I was mad when it went into the first overtime.”

There’s been a lot of talk about how UConn playing four games in four days, and now five games in five, can be a detriment to the team. Jim Boeheim predicted Walker wouldn't slow one bit after Syracuse won against St. John's Thursday night. He was right.

Calhoun has no choice but to accept this format. And he doesn't let his team even approach the issue publicly. Play as well as they can as a team, but let Kemba get his biggest collegiate moment in his hometown. (Walker is from the Bronx.)

“No one’s bitching and moaning by the fact this is tough. We knew we needed it,” Calhoun said.

The added game is a bit overblown, anyway. The players would've been worked in weigh rooms or practice facilities anyway. And, again, Walker's got an ever-life battery in that chest. That the players can get tired, or this back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-bac
k run could have affects in the NCAA tournament ... Calhoun refuses to buy into that, though he did give up this nugget:

“He actually looked tired at the start of the game, not the end of the game, because that was winning time,” the Hall of Fame coach said about Walker.

As the game wore on, Walker grew thicker, deeper treads on his tires. Connecticut blew a six-point lead in the final minute, but this time, you couldn’t find an iota of a reason to put that on Walker. And in the extra five minutes, Walker was as vital to his team as ever, especially after Huskies forward Alex Oriakhi fouled out.

“I’d give them a day off tomorrow, but otherwise, we’d be practicing,” Calhoun said. “And they’d rather do a game. And so would I, to be honest.”

They get that game and one more chance to finish off an unpredictable, drama-filled season. Walker's so good, he makes you forget about all the trouble his coach and program have gotten into with the NCAA.

Walker’s a legend to Calhoun and his teammates because he turned his grades around and never let his head inflate.

“He never talks about the NBA. He only talks about us and his family,” Calhoun said.

Afterward, when the media horde had mostly died down and moved on to watch Louisville-Notre Dame or start filing their UConn-Syracuse stories, Walker slumped against the pale-white painted walls in the bowel of Madison Square Garden. He was eager for an ice bath and then a hotel bed. Before sauntering away, the most coveted man in Madison Square Garden cracked a joke.

“This is the most exhausting thing,” Walker said of the interview process. The horde is the one opponent he can't shake so easily. That's his own fault.

Photo: AP

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Posted on: March 11, 2011 2:30 am
 

Big East night cap a pair of snoozers

Posted by Matt Norlander

NEW YORK — After what the first two and a half days of Big East tournament basketball presented, a come-down was to be expected.

The good news for the conference is, while Notre Dame and Louisville’s cruise-control blowouts were snoozers, they set up the best possible scenario for Friday night. When given the bracket, most would’ve picked the four teams left standing as the best possible group if you combine talent, fan interest and television draw.

Louisville didn’t mess around in the late game. It defeated Marquette, 81-56, and made no question about its performance. This was crucial for Rick Pitino and his Cardinals because they defeated Marquette in one of the most unlikely ways earlier this season, when the Golden Eagles blew a 19-point lead in six minutes and fell, 71-70.

Pitino called that win over Marquette on “a fluke” on his team’s behalf. This one was certainly not. Afterward, Pitino said he hasn’t had this much fun coaching a basketball team since 1987, when he coached Providence to the Final Four.  

Three of the top four seeds won Thursday. The last time that happened was 2007, when all four favorites advanced to Friday-night play. In one of the most competitive years in the history of the conference, seeding has done a decent job of holding to form. Pitino said he was a little cautious coming in due to the elongated layoff.

“I worry about the double-bye sometimes, not being prepared,” Pitino said. “I don’t think any coach is a big proponent of the double-bye.”

Marquette was playing its third game in as many nights. And just as in 2010, it ran out of gas in the second half against a superior opponent.

“The same thing happened to us last year,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “Ten minutes to go against Georgetown last year, our third game in three nights, it was a tie ball game—they beat us by 23. Halftime tonight, we’re down five, and we get blitzed.”

The Cardinals pretty much did what they wanted. They may not have looked as good as Notre Dame did against Cincinnati, but it was close. The Golden Eagles couldn’t stop the long ball.

“If the team you’re playing scores 50 percent of their points from 3, you can probably deduct it was a long night,” Williams said.

The loss may have been good for Marquette though, as it will surely dodge the 8/9 game, instead getting a 10 or 11, and thus an easier second-round opponent, should it get there.

“I think the carryover that I hope we will have is that we arrived in New York not knowing what tournament we would play in,” Williams said. “And we go back to Milwaukee knowing what tournament that is.”

Louisville and Notre Dame will face each other for the first time in Big East tournament history Friday night. The Irish will play for a one seed, while Louisville will continue to go about its business, not a future NBA player on the team.

“Not since 1996 did I walk into a place and feel as confident as this,” Pitino said. “We know Notre Dame is very, very tough. They’re very, very skilled. They put on a passing clinic each night.”

In 1996, Rick Pitino was coaching a Kentucky team that’s considered one of the greatest of all-time.

Mike Brey and Pitino have done two of the best coaching jobs this season. It’s only fitting they get the chance to face each other for the right to play for a conference title. And odds are Friday night’s going to go a lot better than Thursday.

Photo: AP

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Posted on: March 11, 2011 12:33 am
Edited on: March 11, 2011 1:25 am
 

Wrapping up a crazy Thursday of action

Posted by Matt Jones

Today was one of the busiest days of the year in college basketball, with all six major tournaments having at least three games each and crazy action all over the nation. It was the type of day that deserves a neat summary in conclusion:

Game of the Day:  UCONN vs Pitt

This was the rare instance where the best game of the day on paper, ended up being the best game of the day in practice. Both teams played with a ton of energy and the game was actually executed on a very high level at both ends. Pittsburgh showcased the exception defense that makes them a Final Four contender, but the Panthers had no answer for the one-on-one play from UCONN in the second half. Kemba Walker was once again a revelation and his shakedown of Gary Mcghee at the end of the game is one of those plays that you will see over and over in the years to come. A lasting image in a quarterfinal tournament game?  That is easily the game of the day.


Biggest Win: Colorado over Kansas State

Colorado came into its Big 12 quarterfinal against Kansas State with one clear objective.  A win over one of the hottest teams in the country would not only vault the Buffaloes to the conference semifinals in its final year in the league, but would also put Colorado on the right side of the NCAA bubble.  The ensuing 87-75 performance was one of the best of the year we have seen in college basketball when it mattered the most. Whatever happens for the rest of the tournament, Colorado will hear its name called on Selection Sunday and when that happens, they can look back at this win as the main reason why.

 

Most Impressive Performance: Texas A&M over Missouri

There are many reasons to wonder what has happened to Missouri over the past few weeks. Mike Anderson's team has looked poor on a number of occasions down the stretch, but never has the team seemed to have less life than during today's 86-71 smackdown at the hands of the Aggies. For those around the Texas A&M program, there is some quiet optimism that this team may be clicking at the right time to make some surprising March noise. If the game on Thursday in Kansas City is any indication, it may not be that surprising for long.

 

Worst Loss: UCLA 

I have given up trying to figure out the Pac 10. I can forgive the occasional poor road performance by one of the three top powers, but UCLA's 76-59 loss to Oregon on Thursday was just plain pathetic. You are playing in your home city, with a chance to get a better seed and re-establish dominance in a conference that has somewhat forgotten your existence in the last two years. Instead, you show up and go through the motions of caring, while putting one of the worst teams in the conference through to the semifinals. An embarrassing loss for a program that has clearly slipped in the past three years.

 

Performance of the Day: Michael Thompson

The Big 10 tournament hasn't been around as long as some of its fellow Championship Week events, but it still deserves attention when one of its records is broken. Michael Thompson of Northwestern went out and scored a smooth 35 points in a 75-65 victory by his Wildcats over Minnesota. While Northwestern is not likely to break its NCAA tournament drought this year, Thompson's performance gives the school a rare record that is not based upon futility. And for that, it is worth a mention.


Setup for Biggest Game Tomorrow: Georgia vs Alabama

Only one game tomorrow is a play-in game for the NCAA Tournament and it occurs in Atlanta, Georgia. Thanks to the Bulldogs victory over Auburn, Georgia and Alabama play at 1 pm, with the winner likely into the NCAA Tournament and the loser on the bubble on Selection Sunday. Both teams played to end the regular season and Alabama's win gave the Tide a fighting chance for the Big Dance. Now with this the only game of the weekend in which two bubble teams play each other, you can expect a large reward to the winner.


Worst Day of Basketball:  SEC in Atlanta

This was a terrible day to be stationed as I was, in Atlanta for the SEC tournament. All four games were dreadful. Three were decided by double digits and the four losers represented some of the worst teams in major conference college basketball. Every game saw more Kentucky fans waiting for their team to play on Friday than fans of the teams actually on the court and the gym resembled a morgue during Friday night's finale between LSU and Vanderbilt. The schedule is a bit meatier on Friday, but for Day One at least, the SEC has been a dud.

 

MVP of the Day:  Kemba Walker

One of the most impressive crossovers you will ever to see to get an open final look. Kemba's shot fit in well with all of his heroics this year and reminded everyone that the Huskies are still a force to be reckoned with this March. We will see if they can get four games in four days against Syracuse tomorrow, but that shot and the move that made him open, will be remembered for a long time to come.


Posted on: March 10, 2011 8:59 pm
 

Syracuse's win sets up terrific Friday night tilt

NEW YORK — The Big East couldn’t have a better matchup.

Unless it was for the conference championship.

But Syracuse vs. Connecticut in a Friday night semifinal will have to suffice. After the Orange held off St. John’s in Thursday afternoon’s late tilt, winning 79-73, it set up what’s sure to be the most anticipated game around the country Friday.

After all, this is Syracuse vs. UConn, the neo super rivalry in the Big East. Most notably, it’s the first meeting between the two teams in Big East tournament play since that six-overtime game two years ago made every sports writer and editor in New York City work until 4 in the morning.

The dream draw came to fruition after the afternoon started with Kemba Walker banging home a game-winning shot against Pittsburgh. Syracuse was waiting in the tunnel when Walker hit the shot that knocked Pitt out. The Orange’s Scoop Jardine said when he heard the crowd erupt, he knew Walker was the one who took the shot.

The Orange has to avoid presenting Walker with a similar scenario around 9 p.m. Friday night. There’ s a very good chance it won’t come to that. Outside of the weak odds a game comes down to the final shot, consider: In the teams’ only other meeting this season, on Feb. 2, Syracuse won at Connecticut, 66-58. It was arguably Walker’s worst game of the season. In fact, there’s not much to argue: his eight points were the lowest total for Walker this season, and the only time he didn’t reach double digits.

“You always learn from a game, whether your win or lose,” Syracuse’s Kris Joseph said. “I know they learned some things and they’ll make sure they don’t make the same mistakes. What we’re going to do is make sure we play Kemba the same way we did.”

Boeheim considers that result an outlier on Connecticut’s season.

“I don’t take anything out of the [last] Connecticut game,” Boeheim said. “I don’t think they played well, Kemba had probably his worst night of the year, and we know that won’t happen tomorrow night.”

A story line many members of the media discussed inside Madison Square Garden was the fatigue issue. Syracuse will be playing its second game of the tournament, while UConn’s gearing up for its fourth. Usually, that fourth day is when the legs get caught. But Boeheim will be primarily worried with Walker, and he doesn’t expect him to be slowed one bit.

“They’re a team that can do that,” Boeheim said. “Kemba Walker can play eight nights in a row, and they play a lot of guys and I don’t see that being a factor tomorrow night at all. I mean, the year we won four games we were playing six guys and it was a factor.”

If you’re hoping for a coda to the 2009 game, you’re certainly not alone. Once players starting taking questions in the locker room, postgame, the overtime questions and resets on one of the most epic games in Big East history were flying. Let the record show: no one wants to play 70 minutes of basketball again.

“Hopefully not,” Joseph said. Let’s get it done in regulation. … I mean, one overtime would be all right — but not six.”

Even if it only goes to one overtime, the matchup will have exceeded the billing. It’s Syracuse and UConn on a Friday night in March at Madison Square Garden. The fan bases will flood the area surrounding 4 Pennsylvania Plaza and get the city whirring with excitement well before tip-off.

Posted by Matt Norlander

Photo: AP




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Posted on: March 10, 2011 4:58 pm
Edited on: March 10, 2011 6:44 pm
 

Kemba Walker elevates Big East tourney drama

Posted by Matt Norlander

NEW YORK — Kemba. That needs to be the first word of this post. Clearly.

It’d be a fool’s errand to make my primary blog post for UConn-Pitt off anything but the final play and Kemba Walker.

And, at the same time, what can there be said? This isn’t new. This isn’t hair-tugging, unexpected drama. This is old hat. Walker’s done this all season long. He’s hit clutch, game-winning shots. That’s him. His legacy is secured; the possibility of becoming legendary hangs in the unknown of the next few days of the Big East tournament and the following weeks of the NCAAs.

“The play before I missed a shot and my teammates told me, ‘Stay aggressive,’” Walker said. “And anybody in the world knew that ball was coming to me.”

Walker clearly took the atmosphere, attention and drama of the Big East tournament to another level. This is hardly surprising, but it's exciting all the same.

But here's something to remember: Walker admitted his confidence was a little down, as he told me in our one-on-one video interview. Huskies fans know the counter to all this just as well: Walker’s missed nearly as many big shots as he’s hit. He’s taken a lion’s share of bad jumpers. Turnovers, ugly looking ones in the lane, those have popped up all too frequently as well. The man who has climbed up the all-time rankings in UConn lore remains as exciting as ever, and in the final seconds of a game, the great dichotomy exists.

Yeah, Kemba’s going to be the one that gets and shoots the ball, but what’s going to happen before that? The great unknown. He’s not Mr. Reliable. Has never claimed to be. But more often than not, Walker’s saved UConn this season and turned them into the top-four seed they’ll be come Selection Sunday.

Thursday afternoon in Madison Square Garden, it was another clip for the ever-looping highlight reel. A poor, helpless Gary McGhee suddenly found himself on an island with the nation’s quickest point guard.

Gulp.

Walker could’ve easily blown by the 6-10 Panthers center, but instead chose to yo-yo him before snapping his ankles in front of 19,375 people. Then ball beautifully fell through the hoop, and Madison Square Garden exploded.

“I was going to go to the basket on him,” Walker said. “I was going to penetrate and get a layup or get a foul for a teammate but he fell so I was able to get a clean, clean look at the rim. So I took my shot.”

And everything prior to that is forgotten. The fact UConn embarrassed Pittsburgh on the glass, the fact the Panthers blew a big first-half lead — none of it matters. Underneath the subplots playing out in the final minutes was Walker willing himself toward his ultimate moment.

I can’t remember a player who more embodies the notion of shoot-no-matter-the-circumstance than Walker. He’s more likely to win a game for the Huskies than he is to lose it, but the uncertainty that hangs in the air is what makes UConn — and Walker — so mesmerizing.

“Like I said, I think he’s the most important guy for a single team in college basketball,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said.

Can’t disagree with that. Not when it seems pretty clear UConn wouldn’t be an NCAA tournament team without its star junior guard. Now, primetime and the weekend awaits.

“As we go into play beyond this, and I was telling the kids, we have not experienced it recently, but Friday night in Madison Square Garden, semifinal, it’s a pretty special building to walk into,” Calhoun said. “And they’ll have an opportunity to do that tomorrow night.”

Photo: AP


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Posted on: March 10, 2011 3:23 pm
 

Video: One-on-one with - who else? - Kemba

Posted by Matt Norlander

When you don't have a television camera, you wait at the back of the line. So here's Kemba Walker after about 40 minutes worth of interviews. It's a quick one. Enjoy!

Posted on: March 10, 2011 2:15 pm
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