Championship Week 2002

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Tuesday, March 5
Updated: March 6, 12:46 PM ET
 
Will C-USA's chaotic end extend into tourney

By Pat Forde
Special to ESPN.com

In its seventh year of existence, there are strong signs that Conference USA is finally growing up. There is evidence that the league created to become a basketball power is suddenly ready to leap from suspended adolescence to authentic adulthood.

Maybe this week.

Consider the way C-USA ended the regular season: Four classic games involving the league's five Cadillac programs. Every single one came down to a last shot, and every single one was an emotional and physical free-for-all.

Feb. 22: Cincinnati 63, Marquette 62. League's Game of the Year decided on a 15-foot jumper by 6-foot-11 Bearcats center Donald Little with three seconds left.

Feb. 27: Louisville 74, Cincinnati 71. A team seemingly outmanned at four starting positions and off the bench performed Rick Pitino's first signature upset as coach of the Cardinals, and reopened the league race.

March 2: Louisville 90, Charlotte 88, OT: Spectacular game included a five-minute officials' replay review that correctly wiped out the 49ers' game-winning shot at the buzzer of regulation. It finally was decided on a driving shot by freshman Larry O'Bannon with less than two seconds remaining in overtime.

March 3: Cincinnati 80, Memphis 75, OT: Steve Logan rescued the Bearcats with a length-of-the-court drive and jumper at the horn in regulation, then they hung on in overtime to win the conference regular season title outright.

Is there another league in the land that can match that stretch run?

Certainly, the league still faces issues. The bottom half is weak, and the two schools added to boost football (East Carolina and Texas Christian) have been detriments to the basketball power rating this year. And no more than a couple of schools can be guaranteed to bring sizeable fan contingents to the league tourney this week in Cincinnati.

But with Cincinnati still in the argument for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed, Marquette having spent late-season time in the Top 10, Charlotte on rock-solid footing with coach Bobby Lutz and Memphis and Louisville both well on their way back to national prominence, there's a lot for C-USA to brag about.

At the very least, teams have followed Cincinnati's muscular lead and made it clear that only the strongest survive. This tournament won't be for the faint of heart.

"It's physically brutal," said retiring TCU coach Billy Tubbs, in his first and last year in the league. "We're probably the most physical league in the nation. The referees should carry flags in their pockets instead of whistles."

The football these guys play in shorts might be as good as they play on the gridiron in this league. And if the upper-echelon teams can replicate their play leading up to this point, this will be a memorable tourney.

Cincinnati's routine regular-season hegemony has not followed through in the league dance. That's more been the domain of Charlotte in recent years, under Bobby Lutz (he's 9-1 in the C-USA tournament).

If you're looking for an outsider, think about Saint Louis or Houston. The Billikens play an annoyingly patient style and know what it's like to win four games in four days, having done it just two years ago. The precocious Cougars don't lack for talent in the starting five, even with the suspension of point guard Kevin Gaines.

But the X Factor in all this could well be Louisville. Not only did the Cardinals show a resurgent burst with those back-to-back upsets of Cincinnati and Charlotte, they have the nation's No. 1 conference tournament coach.

Apologies to Lutz, but check the numbers.

When Pitino was at Kentucky, he went a preposterous 17-1 in the SEC tourney -- and you could argue that he threw the one game he lost, to Mississippi State in the 1996 final. Pitino benched star forward Antoine Walker for the final 18 minutes of that game to teach him a lesson about unselfish play and the Bulldogs rolled to a shocking win over the nation's No. 1 team. (It all worked out in the end. A chastened Walker helped lead the Wildcats to the national title three weeks later.)

Pitino correctly points out that none of his Kentucky teams were facing odds as long as these Cardinals, who enter the tournament as a modestly talented No. 7 seed. But there might be one parallel to be drawn.

In 1994, the Cats came in with a 27-7 record but had dipped in talent when Jamal Mashburn went pro as a junior and center Rodney Dent blew out his knee. Nevertheless, that team upset eventual national champion Arkansas by 12 in the SEC semifinals and then knocked off eventual Final Four participant Florida by 13 in the title game.

This team has the additional carrot of an NCAA bid dangling in front of it. At 17-11, the Cardinals need to win at least two games to make a compelling case for admission.

But even being on the bubble is an upgrade from where Louisville was just a week ago. Supporting actors Ellis Myles, Luke Whitehead, Bryant Northern, Joseph N'Sima and O'Bannon have stepped up dramatically.

"We're no longer Reece Gaines and a bunch of guys named Harry," Pitino said. "We've become a good team."

Good enough to win what could be a great league tournament? Stay tuned.

Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com






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