This is my favorite sports week of the year. Steelers-Baltimore Ravens week is right there. So is the handful of days when the Penguins play the Philadelphia Flyers. But there's nothing like the Big East Conference tournament. The best college basketball league in America, by far. Incredible competition from opening tap to final horn. New York, New York. Madison Square Garden, where the lights on championship Saturday night are, literally and figuratively, the brightest in the college game.
The Big East tournament isn't as important as the NCAA tournament that follows. No one is saying it is. But it might be better. For me, it's more entertaining. Bobby Knight once said it's just as hard to win a Big East championship as the national championship. That makes it worthwhile to me. To suggest it is meaningless? That it is little more than programming for ESPN and a money-grab for the conference and its schools? That's ridiculous. Don't take my word for it. Ask the players and coaches. Tune in during the next five days and watch them in action. Check out the ferocity from the players under the basket. Check out the intensity from the coaches on the bench. The Garden -- the big city, itself -- energizes everyone at the games. I dare you to tell them it's meaningless. They will laugh at you. To them, it means everything.
"Neighborhood battles are the best battles," Connecticut Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun once said of the Big East tournament. "We want to win in our neighborhood. You always want to be the bully in your neighborhood."
I can still see the smile on Pitt guard Brandin Knight's face after Pitt beat Connecticut in 2003 to win its first Big East tournament title. I can still hear the emotion in coach Ben Howland's voice after Knight, playing on a bad right ankle, willed Pitt to the 74-56 win with 16 points, 6 assists and 2 steals. You think Howland was troubled by criticism from those who believed he should have saved Knight for the NCAA tournament? "Do you think there's any way in the world I would have been able to keep him out?" Howland asked, incredulously. "He would have killed me."
It's safe to say current Pitt stars Travon Woodall, Steven Adams and James Robinson would react the same way if coach Jamie Dixon tried to hold them out of Pitt's first Big East tournament game Thursday afternoon, probably against Syracuse. The three are fighting nagging injuries, but they won't miss a tournament game in Pitt's final Big East season before it moves next season to the Atlantic Coast Conference. They will worry about the NCAAs next week.
Pitt's expectations at the Big East tournament have changed rather dramatically over the years. In its first 18 seasons in the conference, from 1982-83 through 1999-2000, it went 6-18 in the tournament and failed to win more than one game in any year. Now, there actually are people worried about how a double bye will impact Pitt's chances of winning a championship. "You always want to win as many games as you can and finish as high in the standings as you can," Dixon said, dismissing those worries.
In one sense, history is working against Pitt this week. It earned a double bye in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and lost its first game each time to West Virginia, Notre Dame and Connecticut, respectively.
But in another sense, Pitt couldn't have a better draw. If it gets Syracuse Thursday, it won't be intimidated. It beat Syracuse by 10 points Feb. 2 at Petersen Events Center and has won 14 of its past 18 games against Syracuse. Should Pitt get No. 1 seed Georgetown Friday night in the semifinals, it also will be confident. It beat Georgetown by 28 points Jan. 8 at Georgetown.
Just getting to the prized championship Saturday night would be a terrific accomplishment for Pitt. It seems hard to believe now that Pitt went to seven finals in an eight-year span from 2000-01 to 2007-08. It won its second league tournament title in 2008 when it upset top-seeded Georgetown, 74-65, to complete its four-wins-in-four-games run. One of the New York tabloids suggested that Pitt team should change its name to "Gritt." That was the tournament in which Pitt freshman DeJuan Blair began to establish himself as one of the program's all-time greats by holding his own against Georgetown 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert with 10 points and 10 rebounds. "I got tired of hearing about Roy Hibbert," Blair gushed afterward. "I think I showed everyone who DeJuan Blair is tonight."
Calhoun, the former Connecticut coach, surely can relate. I can still see him leaping toward the Garden rafters after Connecticut beat Pitt in two overtimes in the 2002 Big East tournament championship. Howland also must understand Blair's unbridled joy. "This is why you come to Pitt, to play in Madison Square Garden," Howland once said. "You play to win championships. Everyone wants to add banners to their gym."
I can't wait to see if Pitt gets a third Big East tournament banner this week for Petersen Events Center.
No matter what happens, I will be the last person out of the Garden late Saturday night. They might have to drag me out of the grand building. When they turn out the lights, the Big East tournament, as we've known it, will be dead.
What a fabulous 31-year run it will have had on Broadway.
What awesome memories.
Aren't you glad the Big East took Pitt along for an amazing ride?
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published March 12, 2013 4:00 AM