NEW YORK – Thursday is always the best day at the Big East Tournament. At least it was always the best day. There are four games, nearly all of which annually involve NCAA Tournament teams. It’s basketball from noon to midnight, high caliber games with top-tier players. It’s a junkie's delight.
And the best part about this Thursday at the Big East is that it sets up the most delicious possible Friday. There’s no better Big East rivalry than Syracuse and Georgetown, and there’s been no better consistent match-up the past few years than Notre Dame and Louisville, who have a curious overtime dependency.
“I didn’t think about it like that,” Irish senior Jack Cooley said of the twin bill. “You can tell the Big East, ‘You’re welcome.’”
While looking forward to a buzzing Friday night, here are five things percolating through the Garden on Thursday. (And this is probably a bad time to mention that three of the four teams in the semis are heading to the ACC.)
1. The biggest question looming over The Garden is simple: “Will Jim Boeheim retire this year?” From talking to numerous people close to Boeheim this week, the feel I’ve gotten is that it’s not likely, but Boeheim hasn’t decided yet. The other big Syracuse question is what will happen if Mike Hopkins gets the USC job, as he’s one of the top candidates to replace Kevin O’Neill. If Hopkins, a Southern California native, does get the job, Boeheim could end up staying a bit longer. Why? Hopkins has spent seven years as Boeheim’s designated successor. And there’s really no other logical choice, at least one with Syracuse ties. So if Hopkins leaves, who eventually gets the Syracuse job? That’s a question I haven’t heard a good answer for.
2. Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey had a simple message for guard Pat Connaughton after Wednesday night’s win over Rutgers. Connaughton hit six 3-pointers in that game and Brey lit into him after for passing up an open shot. “If you pass one up on Thursday, I’m going to come out on the floor and tackle you,” Brey joked.
There was no tackling needed. Connaughton drilled six more 3-pointers in Notre Dame's 73-65 victory over Marquette on Thursday. He’s 12-for-18 from 3-point range so far this NCAA Tournament and redeeming himself after an uneven season in which he's admitted to deferring too much to his teammates. Pep talks from teammates like Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant and Cooley have helped him stay aggressive.
“I was looking more at the negatives than positives, and that’s something I’ve never really done before and something I had to bite in the butt, so to speak,” he said.
Can a good postseason make up for some regular season struggles?
“The bottom line is that people remember you for being a winner,” Connaughton said. “That’s something at the end of the day I look for in my game.”
The Irish found themselves in a five-overtime game against Louisville earlier in the season, so it’s fitting this match-up has happened in the Big East Tournament. This is the third straight Notre Dame-Louisville semi-final match-up. The Irish have never made the title game.
“I would have been really upset if Louisville lost,” Notre Dame senior Jack Cooley said. “I would have texted [Louisville guard] Peyton [Siva] and been pissed.”
3. The Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin didn’t waste the opportunity to use his final bully pulpit at the Big East Tournament to fire a few shots. “The fact that we're sitting here and this is the last Big East Tournament is beyond ridiculous,” he said. “This is the greatest tradition in college athletics, this tournament, at one site for over 30‑something years. It's only gone for one reason, money.”
Cronin went on to complain that student athletes are being exploited. He told a story about his players being forced to miss class to attend a Sweet 16 press conference yet having to take a bus home to Cincinnati from Nashville after the loss. Cronin said that he used to be against paying players a small stipend but changed his mind. “There's no question players are being exploited,” he said. “Football and basketball players are being exploited, there's no question about it.”
You may agree or disagree. But in an era of bland “one game at a time” press conferences, credit Cronin for speaking his mind.
4. There’s been a lot of nostalgia this week about this being the last real Big East Tournament. I’ve spent approximately 50 days of my life in MSG covering the tournament and have to admit there’s plenty I’ll miss. Where else does Bill Clinton show up and give Louisville a postgame pep talk? Where else does referee Pat Driscoll go find an usher midway through the first half of a game and throw out two fans in the front row who’d been heckling him. (The consensus among those near the fans was that their excessive cursing earned their exit.) There are tons of small things, too, from the dance teams practicing in the drafty hallways to the high seeds relishing the Knicks locker room. I always loved those ugly usher jackets they’ve worn for years. I’ll also miss the double fisting Wall Street guys who are hammering beers at the noon tips, their eyes gleaming at the opportunity to cut out of work and cut loose. I’ll also miss the AAU coaches in suspiciously good seats, the runners and agents slinking around the low-level concourse and fans staying to the end rooting for the spread. Let’s hope the next iteration of the Big East Tournament is just as fun. 5. Jay Wright didn’t mince words about Louisville after the Cardinals 74-55 blowout win over Villanova. “This team could win the national championship,” Wright said. Villanova turned the ball over 18 times in the first half and Louisville finished the game with 58 deflections, a total that would count as a good month for most teams. Louisville sophomore Chane Behanan credited the success to the Cardinals’ “Hey drill,” a defensive drill when Louisville players get up into offensive players and yell, “HEY, HEY, HEY, HEY.” It’s likely a bit more complicated than that, but that’s how Behanan explained it. Nova finished with 24 turnovers, and assistant Raphael Chillious explained, “One turnover turns into three and then five.” I’m curious to see how Louisville does Friday night, but I’m already very tempted to pick them to win the NCAA Tournament. How fun would a Louisville-Indiana final be? (Our Luke Winn tackled the other major storyline from that game, Russ Smith scoring 28 in honor of the passing of his high school coach, Jack Curran).