NEW YORK -- Pitt's charter flight made it to Teterboro, N.J., airport without a problem. The team bus didn't break down and rolled into Manhattan. Maybe you're thinking what I'm thinking: Now that Pitt is here, it might as well go all out and win the Big East Conference tournament this weekend. The banner would look lovely hanging in Petersen Events Center, right next to the one Pitt earned by winning the 2010-11 Big East regular-season title. It would be a spectacular sight, actually.
This goes back to something former coach Ben Howland said in '02. "This is why you come to Pitt, to play in games in Madison Square Garden. You play to win championships." It also brings to mind an observation from Jim Calhoun, Connecticut's Hall of Fame coach: "Neighborhood battles are the best battles. We want to win in our neighborhood. You always want to be the bully in your neighborhood."
Damn right Pitt should go all out to win, starting at noon today against Connecticut. There's no other way to play, really. Why worry about the NCAA tournament? That's next week. "I don't know how you're supposed to pull back and then turn it on again," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "I've never understood that thinking."
The effort at the Garden is worth it. We're talking about the best conference tournament in the country. I've never bought the argument that it's a Big East money grab, a made-for-television event between the regular season and the NCAAs. I've been to too many not to realize how important it is to the players and the coaches. The competition is incredibly fierce. The banner is that valuable.
No less than legendary former coach Bob Knight has said winning the Big East tournament is just as hard as winning the national championship. Anything that difficult to get is worth having if you ask me or, for that matter, Dixon. Amazingly, Pitt went to the Big East tournament final seven times in eight years from 2001-08 and won the '03 title under Howland and the '08 title under Dixon.
"Those banners are hanging up there pretty good," Dixon said. "You always want more. You try to win every game you can, every tournament you can. It means even more now with what this conference has become. You're talking about 10, maybe 11 teams getting into the NCAA tournament when the previous biggest number was eight. That's remarkable. You have to beat a lot of good teams to win this league."
You always want to be the bully in your neighborhood ...
That's especially true when your neighborhood is regarded as the toughest anywhere.
No Big East team has won the national championship since Syracuse and Connecticut won in consecutive years in '03 and '04. Some argue that's because the Big East eats its own at its tournament. They say the conference's teams often leave their best at the Garden and have little left for the NCAA tournament. They point out, in those seven years Pitt made it to the league tournament final, it never advanced past the round of 16 of the NCAAs. It wasn't until '09, when Pitt lost to West Virginia in its first conference tournament game, that it made it to the round of eight.
That argument is nonsense.
You don't believe me?
Check out what Dixon had to say about it.
"I don't think one tournament has anything to do with the other in that sense. I don't think fatigue is ever much of a factor."
Of course, it isn't. We're talking about young men 18-23. Playing ball is what they do. Often in the summer, they will play four or five AAU games in the same day. You think they're going to be worn down playing three games in three days? When, in the best-case scenario, they finish up Saturday and then don't have to play again until Thursday or Friday in the NCAA tournament?
"The thing is, you have to win three games [to win the conference tournament]," Dixon said. "Then, you have to win six more to win the national championship. It's hard to win nine games in a row against really good teams. It's hard to win as many games as everyone wants you to win."
That doesn't mean Pitt shouldn't be willing to take another shot at it. Look at what winning the Big East tournament did for West Virginia a year ago. It made it to the Final Four before losing to eventual national champion Duke.
"It helped us, it really did," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "I thought it gave us a great springboard into the NCAA tournament. I thought we came out of there on a really big high and really played with great emotion after that."
And yes, Huggins said, that '10 Big East tournament championship banner is a terrific addition to WVU Coliseum.
Pitt should be so good and so lucky to add the '11 model to its collection.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org .