NEW YORK – Pittsburgh and Connecticut both lost openers in the Big East tournament. Oklahoma and Kansas did the same in the Big 12. North Carolina fell Saturday and didn't seem to care. Michigan State showed even less concern. LSU, Wake Forest and Washington made no impact during championship week.
It was starting to look like no one outside of Memphis (and maybe Duke) even wanted to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Here in the run up to Selection Sunday, the perceived best teams haven't been playing their best.
Except there was Rick Pitino hugging Jerry Smith as the seconds wound down on a 76-66 Louisville victory over Syracuse for the Big East championship. Here were the Cardinals (28-5) sweeping through the best conference in basketball to stake a claim not just for a top seed but the top seed overall and deserving of a close-to-campus regional.
The NCAA has a dome to fill for the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis and Louisville has plenty of fans willing to cruise up I-65 to help do it. Economics aside, Pitino's club simply has the best argument for getting the most optimal bid.
"Number one seed," chanted the Cardinals as they mugged it up with the Big East trophy. "Number one seed."
Being a No. 1 seed offers a slightly easier road to the Final Four than a No. 2 seed. Other than that, it doesn't matter. Mostly the success rate of top seeds (they've won seven of the last 10 championships) is because they were the best teams during the regular season.
"There's so much banter and talk about seeding," Pitino said. "I've never seen so much talk about 'in and out' [and] seeds. I can tell you from coaching in the tournament as a six seed, a five seed, a three seed, it really doesn't matter. You're going to have to play good basketball."
The Cardinals got to this point with a slow but steady approach. They went from November to last week without cracking the top five in the national polls. In early January they nearly dropped out of the Top 25 altogether. They've lost to Western Kentucky and Minnesota and just over a month ago got blown out by 33 at lowly Notre Dame.
They spent the season in the shadows, watching as UConn, Pitt and Carolina passed the top slot back and forth.
The Cards are 20-2 since Jan. 1 though, and winners of 10 consecutive games. They won both the regular season and tournament titles "in the toughest year in the history of the Big East," Pitino noted.
The lack of wire-to-wire dominance might be perfect for this season, when truly great teams are in short supply.
"Nobody's looked unbeatable," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Saturday at the Big Ten tournament. "Nationwide I think parity is here to stay. I think anybody can beat anybody on a given night."
What the week has shown, with its lack of chalk champs in major conferences, is that this year as much as ever, anything can happen in a one-and-done tournament. A season ago, for the first time ever, all four No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four.
That seems improbable this year.
Memphis coach John Calipari is the first to note his current team, despite its gaudy 31-3 record, isn't as strong as his star-studded group that advanced to last year's national title game.
"Neither is anyone else though," Calipari said. "We may not have to be as good."
Last year the Final Four schools – Kansas, Memphis, UCLA and North Carolina – were also ranked in the preseason top four. Louisville was the preseason No. 3 this year, so perhaps what we're seeing is just the fulfillment of its potential, the righting of a ship.
Pitino's team is deep, with eight different players averaging more than 12 minutes a game. Forwards Terrence Williams and Earl Clark are playing like the future pros they are.
The Cards defense has turned up a notch – opponents averaged just 58.3 points a game in this tournament. Pitino credits team commitment and his ball hawk point guard, Andre McGhee, who "puts more pressure on than any mother-in-law in the country."
Pitino skipped the trophy presentation on the Madison Square Garden floor and instead retired to the team locker room. It's the one usually used by the New York Knicks, whom he coached from 1987-89. He said the celebration and net cutting was a time for the players, "they do all the work," he said.
Back there away from the hoopla, he was doing some work too though. He prepared a whiteboard with some key stats and motivational points he could pound home while he still had his players' attention.
He has the look of a man who knows he's entering the NCAAs with a real shot at winning it all. His club might have been ignored much of the season, but this is different. It isn't the loaded Kentucky club he coached to the 1996 championship, but as Calipari noted, it doesn't need to be that good.
It just needs to better than everyone else. This week at least, it was just that.
- Rick Pitino
- Michigan State