NEW YORK -- When asked what he thought his team’s Big East tournament championship game against Connecticut would be like, Rick Pitino laughed.
“Well I don’t think this game will be a work of art,’’ he said.
This won’t be where-points-went-to-die ugly like the Wisconsin-Penn State mudder on Thursday, but it will be a slugfest. Both teams are gassed.
Yet both teams also feel like they have something to prove still, and this game is the ultimate proving ground, the final trophy from the toughest league in the country.
The Big East Conference hasn’t disappointed all season. Why would it start now, in its last game?
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun insisted on Friday night, "We won’t be tired. We won’t be tired." He might have been trying to convince himself more than anything else. There’s no way the Huskies won’t be standing on rubbery legs. Yes, guys played a bunch of games back in high school during the summer league travel circuit, but anyone who has watched five minutes of those games knows the intensity isn’t quite the same as the Big East.
Louisville won’t be fresh as a daisy, either. The Cardinals are only on Game 3, but all three have tipped off at 9:30 p.m. ET and sent the Cards out of the Garden after 1 a.m. That wears on a team, as does a bite-the-inside-of-your-mouth overtime winner against Notre Dame.
Players to watch
I’m waiting for some entrepreneurial salesman with a trinket stand outside of Madison Square Garden to start hawking WWKD bracelets to the masses. What will Kemba do?
What’s left? Own the city? Check. Set a national scoring record in a conference tournament? Check. Practically will his team to an unforgettable season? Check. Hang out with an ex-president? Check.
Kemba Walker has scored 111 points in four days. There is no Kemba on the Louisville roster, but that’s not a knock on the Cards. There are no Kembas on any other roster.
What the Cardinals have is what Pitino accurately described as a group of "very good players, maybe no NBA players right now, but good players who want to win." The Cards are that oddity in college basketball, an honest to goodness sum-of-our-parts team. In this game, though, the most critical cogs will be Peyton Siva and Preston Knowles. It will be up to one of them to handle Walker defensively.
The Cardinals are 2-0 against the Huskies this season, beating UConn in Louisville 71-58 and in Connecticut, 79-78 in double overtime.
What to look for
How will the Huskies, especially as drained as they must be, handle Louisville’s pressure? The Cardinals’ defense has been relentless and unforgiving down the stretch, and they will try to disrupt and speed up Walker and company. In two games this season, Louisville forced Connecticut into 28 turnovers.
The Huskies need to respect the arc. Kyle Kuric has been and can be lethal when he gets going. UConn did a nice job on him in its most recent game -- he had only six points -- but in the double overtime Louisville win, he had 15.
Frankly, though, this game is going to come down to intangibles that a box score can’t explain. Connecticut is going for history -- no one has ever won five games in five nights in college basketball. And Louisville is going for respect. Like the Huskies, the Cardinals weren’t expected to be here, but there’s probably more doubters still lurking about Louisville’s abilities than there are surrounding UConn.