The No. 2-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish (ranked No. 4 by both college basketball polls) made a statement Thursday night in a 89-51 thumping of No. 7 Cincinnati Bearcats in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Big East Tournament. That statement was easy to understand: We are the best team in the nation's toughest conference, not No. 1 Pittsburgh Panthers.
Well, a win in the semifinals Friday night at Madison Square Garden against the No. 3 Louisville Cardinals (9 p.m. on ESPN), who blew out No. 11 Marquette, 81-56, in the quarterfinals, would push Notre Dame to its first Big East Tournament title game and basically cement a No. 1-seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Pittsburgh, which suffered a final-second loss to No. 9 UConn, 76-74, Thursday afternoon, isn't so sure of its No. 1-seed destiny. What the Panthers do know is that earlier in the year the Irish defeated the Panthers, 56-51, Jan. 24. Notre Dame made it to the semis with ease. Pittsburgh exited after its first game. The debate of the best team in the conference is over. The Irish win in a landslide.
Considering that Notre Dame has Big East Player Of The Year, Ben Hansbrough, who scored a game-best 23 points Thursday night, and The Coach Of The Year, Mike Brey, who is the third-longest tenured coach in the league, the debate over No. 1 should have ended a few weeks ago. But that's how the Irish have done things this year.
The SB Nation New York Most Surprising Team began the year not ranked in the preseason top 25 and No. 7 out of 16 teams in the preseason Big East Coaches poll. The Irish stayed under the radar until they defeated Pitt, a win that vaulted them into the top-10 in both college basketball polls, but they've never been classified as the best in the league despite their head-to-head victory. Until Thursday night.
For Louisville (No. 14 in both polls), head coach Rick Pitino is hunting for his second Big East Tournament title in three seasons. The legendary coach, who has been to nine Elite Eights and five Final Fours, knows how to prepare his team for big-time games like this.
Pitino has a bunch of weapons to work with: Senior guard Preston Knowles, a All-Big East Second Team selection, is the team's leading scorer (14.5 points per game), but in the Cardinals last 13 games he hasn't led in scoring. Teammate junior forward Kyle Kuric is a gritty, 3-point sharp-shooter (44.4 percent from 3-point land) who finds ways to put up big points during big games -- Kuric scored 28 points at ND, Feb. 2, and 23 versus Syracuse, Feb. 12. Sophomore guard Peyton Siva leads Louisville in assists (5.2 assists per game) and steals (2.1 steals per game), while sophomore guard Mike Marra netted a game-best 23 points off the bench Thursday night.