Cook: Hard to leave Big East, but Pitt, ACC will be fine

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NEW YORK

What? They played the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament here last week and didn't invite Duke and North Carolina? What's up with that?

Oh, that's right.

A technicality.

This still was the Big East Conference tournament, the last of its kind at least as we've known it during its spectacular 34-year run. Louisville used one of the great second-half comebacks in postseason history Saturday night to beat Syracuse, 78-61, for its second consecutive Big East tournament title. It trailed, 45-29, with 15 1/2 minutes left.

What happened the rest of the way -- especially in the next seven minutes -- was amazing and made for an appropriate final chapter to the Big East tournament story. The Louisville comeback started right after Syracuse's James Southerland, who buried Pitt Thursday with six 3-point shots on his way to a tournament-record 19 3s, went to the bench with four fouls. Louisville scored on 13 of its next 14 possessions in a 29-4 run. During that same time, its ferocious defense forced seven Syracuse turnovers, four coming on consecutive possessions.

Just like that, it was over.

One thought was unavoidable when they handed the Big East championship trophy to Louisville coach Rick Pitino:

Louisville and Syracuse likely will play one day soon for the ACC title. Syracuse, as well as Pitt and Notre Dame, will leave the Big East to join the ACC next season. Louisville will follow in 2014-15.

We've spent a lot of time this month soaking in the nostalgia of Pitt's program-altering run in the Big East and lamenting its move from the greatest college basketball conference in history. But maybe it's time to look ahead, to where Pitt is going, to a new league that has a chance to be better than even the Big East.

ACC people will tell you their league was superior even before football-driven conference realignment changed the landscape of college athletics. Everybody knows about Duke and North Carolina. All the great players from Dick Groat to Michael Jordan. The legendary coaches. Mike Krzyzewski. Dean Smith. Roy Williams. The fabulous tradition. Duke and North Carolina alone make the pro-ACC argument valid.

Don't look now, but Miami has become a national-championship contender under second-year coach Jim Larranaga, late of George Mason. It will play North Carolina today for the ACC championship.

North Carolina State also is back and will make its second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance after a six-year absence. Tradition? North Carolina State has it. How many times in the past week have you seen former coach Jim Valvano running around the court, looking for someone to hug after North Carolina State upset Houston to win the national championship in 1983. Yes, 30 years ago.

It's fun to think about what Pitt, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville will bring to the ACC party. Louisville, especially, has become a national power again under Pitino. This was its third Big East tournament championship in the past five years. It went to the Final Four last season and should be a No. 1 seed when the NCAA tournament field is announced today.

The thought of what is ahead for Pitt in the ACC made it a little easier to walk out of Madison Square Garden Saturday night. That building, the world's most famous arena, is the one thing the Big East has over the ACC or any other league tournament. More than 20,000 pack it for every Big East game. You should have heard the crowd roar when Syracuse hung on to beat Pitt Thursday, then survived Georgetown in overtime Friday night. No one was in his or her seat at the end of either game. It made for the best scene in sports. At least that's the opinion here.

What's left of the Big East -- the seven Catholic schools with Butler, Xavier and Creighton expected to join next season ---- get to keep Madison Square Garden for its conference tournament. It's hard not to be jealous. There is no better venue in basketball. There is no other arena with such energy. You could feel it as Louisville started its surge. They say the lights are brighter on Broadway? It's absolutely true at the Garden, especially Friday and Saturday nights at the Big East tournament.

Pitt, certainly, has had its moments in the grand building. It went to seven Big East tournament finals in the eight-year period from 2001-08. It lost to Connecticut, 74-65, in two overtimes in 2002 in one of the league's great games. It got even against Connecticut the next year, winning, 74-56, a seminal moment for a program that, in its first 18 years in the Big East tournament, went 6-18 without winning more than one game in any season. Those games helped to make Pitt-Connecticut an incredible rivalry, the one that will be missed the most. It also is difficult to face the fact that Pitt won't play Georgetown again as a conference opponent. Pitt upset the No. 1-seeded Hoyas, 74-65, in 2008 to win its second tournament championship.

There will be no more titles for Pitt in the Big East.

That's why Pitt coach Jamie Dixon had such a tough time accepting a 62-59 loss Thursday to Syracuse. Pitt will play again in Madison Square Garden -- Dixon will take on any opponent here at any time -- but it won't be the same. It will never be the same.

The ACC will be good.

Keep telling yourself that.

The ACC will be great.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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