CRAWFORD JOURNAL | Another year, another new conference tourname - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD JOURNAL | Another year, another new conference tournament

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (WDRB) — My first conference tournament covering the University of Louisville was at Freedom Hall. The Cards pulled out all the stops. I still have the media gift somewhere — a black-and-white Conference USA umbrella.

What really would have been nice was the gift they gave visiting athletic directors — bottles of Maker's Mark with Tom Jurich's picture on the label.

It was Denny Crum's final appearance as U of L head coach. We knew it would be — the university already had announced it. Jurich rolled into a news conference before the tournament and said he was a one-man search committee and he had a one-man short list: Rick Pitino.

And pretty much from that point on, all hell broke loose.

Trivia question: Who won Crum's last game as U of L coach? Answer: UAB, which won that C-USA Tournament game 74-61 on March 7, 2001.

I like conference tournaments. Kentucky coach John Calipari recently said he didn't care about them, that they never have any bearing on seeding or what comes in the NCAA Tournament. The problem for him is that he's never been in a great conference tournament, where the semifinals can resemble a Final Four. I've covered SEC Tournaments. There's one fan base that really cares. Now, UK's fan base cares enough for everybody, but it's different. You have to acknowledge, it'd be different if Kentucky were looking at a semifinal round that could include Virginia or Duke.

Certainly, C-USA Tournaments I covered were short on national contenders (outside of Bob Huggins' Cincinnati teams), though they were long on drama. Calipari's Memphis Tigers had a chance for a difference-making conference tournament at the FedEx Forum in Memphis in 2005, but Darius Washington missed two of three free throws with no time left on the clock. U of L went on to a Final Four.

I was there for that one, even with the free-throw line as Washington shot it. U of L fans no doubt remember it with glee. In terms of human emotion, it was tough to watch.

Pitino went 1-1 in his first C-USA Tournament, then the Cards won the event on their home court the next season. They went 1-1 again in 2004, losing to tourney host Cincinnati, then won in Memphis.

A year later, they were in the Big East. I have to say, it took me a while to understand what all the buzz was about with the Big East Tournament, because my stays were usually so short. In Pitino's first three trips to the Big East Tournament with Louisville, he won just one game, and was knocked out three straight years by Pittsburgh.

Starting in 2009, when the Cards won it all in Madison Square Garden, Pitino and U of L have gone 15-2 in conference tournaments. They've won the past three they've been in — two Big East and one AAC. They've won 10 conference games in a row.

I remember the 2012 Big East Tournament because I didn't pack enough clothes and didn't even book a hotel room for the night of the championship, so sure was I that the team couldn't win four games in four days, or even three games in three.

Wrong. I covered the championship in 2012, wrote my stories, then hung out at the Garden until going straight to the airport for my early flight home. Lesson learned.

A year later, the Cards fell behind by 16 in the championship game. A partisan crowd was cheering on the Syracuse Orange, and that team seemed destined to win the last Big East Tournament as we know it. Then U of L went on a massive run. Peyton Siva became just the second two-time MVP of the Big East Tournament (with Patrick Ewing), and the Cards ignited their march to the NCAA championship.

I'll never forget former president Bill Clinton watching that tournament, taking to a small group of reporters in the tunnel briefly, breaking down the game as if he'd watched the players all season.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, WDRB's Steve Andress and I were walking out of the building. We noticed that the goals in the Garden had been lowered. The nets, which went untouched by U of L, were still on them. Andress ran to grab a pair of scissors and took home some souvenirs. We later gave one net to Pitino. Half of the other one is still in my office somewhere.

But now I find myself here in Greensboro, N.C. It's not New York. If I can't go to P.J. Clarke's for a cheeseburger before the game, it doesn't feel quite right. But the basketball is every bit as good, and fans here appreciate the game, were lined up outside Greensboro Coliseum on a Wednesday night to wait for the doors to open.

There are eight teams left in the ACC Tournament. Six of them are nationally ranked. Two of them are likely No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. U of L could have this road to a fourth straight tournament championship: North Carolina, then Virginia, then Duke.

It's not the same pressure as the NCAA Tournament, of course, but here's why I like it.

The winner of an event like this has to do it on desire to win. The reward of anything is secondary. Nobody is in it to win conference tournaments. But ask Pitino and that potential level of competition is a huge motivator.

“They know how badly I want to win this tournament,” Pitino said of his players. “And how badly I wanted to win the last Big East Tournament, and how badly I wanted to win the second-to-last Big East Tournament. The team knows how much emphasis I put on this, and how much we want to win it.”

For Pitino, who places so much emphasis on peaking at the right time, the conference tournament is more than a nuisance, it's a dress rehearsal.

“I like it a little bit, because, you play Thursday-Saturday, Friday-Sunday (in the NCAAs), and I think you have little time for preparation, except for the first round, and the second round of course, when you get a little more time,” Pitino said. “Once you get past that first day you have a day to prepare, so I sort of like it as a dress rehearsal. Again, playing against great competition really helps.”

For his career, Pitino is 48-13 in conference tournaments. Asked why his teams seem to fare so well, more often than not, in conference tournaments, he said perhaps its a matter of style.

“I think it takes a while to pick up the things we're trying to do,” Pitino said. “Anytime you have a lot of variables that need to come together it takes time. And the more time and the more success you have of playing it, the better you'll be. I think it was really, really important for us to take out some things going into that (Virginia) game, as we talked about before, so they can just play with a lot of mental freedom, where they're not just thinking about everything. And I think that helps as well.”

The press. The extra aggression in the postseason. And the feeling of rolling the dice a little more and seeing what happens all have marked Pitino teas in the past.

“Most teams get more conservative in the tournament,” Pitino said. “I always want my team to take more chances.”

There's no question, Greensboro lacks some of the big-city feel of the old Big East Tournaments. But it doesn't lack the basketball, or the star power.

In that sense, when the Cardinals began ACC Tournament play today, Pitino should feel right at home.

“I think this competition, what we could potentially face, is incredible,” Pitino said. “The only thing I probably will not like — because I don't know it — I have a funny feeling there will be more Carolina fans there than Louisville fans. 

“We faced, as you all know, we faced Syracuse in the finals of the Big East. That was 15,000 Syracuse fans and 1,500 Louisville fans. We've experience that before. The place will be all Carolina and there will not be many Louisville fans.”

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