It was almost a lock that Connecticut Huskies junior guard Kemba Walker was going to lead the No. 9-seeded Huskies to their seventh Big East Tournament championship on Saturday night. And, Walker did, netting 19 points in a 69-66 victory over the No. 3 Louisville Cardinals at Madison Square Garden. The 6-foot-1 junior guard, who scored 26, 28, 24 and 32 points in the four previous days, respectively, helped UConn (No. 21 in the AP poll and No. 19 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll) polish off the tournament's first ever five wins in five days run.
As I've been pointing out during the whole conference tournament (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and Day 4) there's a lot more to the tournament than just the game scores and recaps, which just tell the basics. So, for the final time in 2011 here's a special NCAA Selection Show (6 p.m. on CBS) edition of: "What Fans Learned" during the 2011 Big East Tournament.
Lesson 1: Eleven teams from the Big East Conference deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament come the end of Sunday.
This lesson probably should have be noted two days ago when the Marquette Golden Eagles (20-14), who beat the Providence Friars and West Virginia Mountaineers, made it to the quarterfinals against Louisville (25-9 and ranked No. 14 in both college polls), but it's more fitting now. Though, the Cardinals destroyed Marquette, 81-56, the 94-year old program from Milwaukee, WI did enough to punch their ticket into the 68-team field.
For the No. 10-seeded Villanova Wildcats (21-11), who lost to No. 15 USF, 70-69, on Tuesday, they're semi-teetering on the bubble after losing five straight games to end the season. (Let's just say the Wildcats are in, but nobody would feel outraged if they were left out.) However, 'Nova's complete body of work, which includes six top-35 victories, will help them earn a double-digit seed.
Lesson 2: A Big East Tournament title run can do wonders for an NCAA Tournament seed.
As of Tuesday, the Huskies were a lock for a No. 5 seed. Now, with five straight wins under their belt and Walker as a star name the NCAA can get behind, UConn has vaulted up to No. 2 (according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi).
When Syracuse made its legendary four wins in four days title run in 2006, the Orange went from being on the bubble to a No. 5 seed (they lost to No. 12 Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAAs).
The big thing UConn (26-9) needs to worry about is running out of gas. Though it seems like Walker runs on some futuristic-solar power technology that never runs out, the rest of the Huskies, including head coach Jim Calhoun who probably would like a three-day nap by now, need to be concerned about hitting a late-season wall.
Lesson 3: Pittsburgh (27-5 and ranked No. 3 by both college polls) and Louisville are the best threats for a Final Four run.
I supported this statement a few weeks ago in a SB Nation New York Top 5 -- Sorry, Notre Dame fans. It just seems that the Fighting Irish (26-6 and No. 4 in the country) are cursed on the basketball court until their football program does anything relevant. The only team I would take out of the Top 5 would be Georgetown, which I'd replace with the Fighting Irish at No. 4 (they did outlast Pitt in the conference tourtournament), behind Pitt, Louisville and Syracuse. The St. John's Red Storm stay at No. 5.
Lesson 4: Syracuse basketball has a 35-percent shot at the Final Four.
Call me crazy, but here's why I believe SU has those type of odds (and the reason is simple). There isn't more than two great teams in the NCAA field: Ohio State, who has the most talent and has carried the No. 1 ranking for a solid number of weeks, and Kansas.
After that, the next tier is compiled of really good teams: Pitt, Louisville, Notre Dame, Duke, Texas and a fast-charging North Carolina team.
Then here's the tier of good teams: BYU, UConn -- both led by specular players who can take over games -- Syracuse, Wisconsin, Purdue and San Diego St.
The kicker is that on any give day, those good teams can beat the really good-great ones. The same scenario goes for the good teams, which can easily lose to one of the Big East's above-average (St. John's, Georgetown, West Virginia) or average teams (Marquette, Cincinnati, Villanova).
Entering the 2011 NCAA Tournament, nobody scares anyone (at least, I believe that no Big East team is scared of anyone out of conference). I think that there will be a lot of confident squads thinking, "If we just play solid basketball one game at a time. We have a really good shot at this." Syracuse is one of those teams that have a 35-percent shot at the Final Four, but I'll need to cal my buddy who's an actuary to see if my percentage adds up.
I hope everyone enjoyed the 2011 Big East Tournament. Now, on to the really fun stuff!