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Syracuse-U-Conn. Epic Breathes New Life Into Big Conference Tournaments

By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, March 14, 2009

NEW YORK

Thursday afternoon, I was convinced the big conference tournament, the very introduction to March Madness, had become diminished. We're no longer living in the 1970s when Maryland, perhaps the best team in the country and no worse than a top-three team nationally one season, could be left out of the NCAA field by the rule that limited conferences to one representative apiece.

We seem to even have moved past the time when winning the conference tournament indicates, absolutely, how well a team will do later in the NCAA tournament. North Carolina Coach Roy Williams pointed out in a conversation the other day how his Tar Heels had reached the Final Four twice, both times when they had lost early in the ACC tournament.

Tony Kornheiser and I, like old guys do, had convinced each other that the conference tournament, with leagues such as the Big East and Big Ten hoping to send eight teams to the NCAA tournament, had lost most of its ability to inspire . . . to thrill. The Summit League tournament? Sign me up. That's where you might find Cinderella, better known as North Dakota State. But where's the drama for leagues that have a half-dozen teams that are locks to get in? Today's Big East has twice as many teams as the NBA of Kornheiser's youth.

Yep, the big conference tournament was becoming passe. We were certain of that Thursday afternoon.

It's a good thing nobody told Syracuse and U-Conn. these things are mere pre-Selection Sunday warmups. It's a good thing they feel about the Big East tournament the same way Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin and Pearl Washington felt back in the day, otherwise they would never have bothered to play through cramps and numbness and dehydration and a level of exhaustion most basketball players will never know.

It's a good thing the Orange and Huskies weren't paying a bit of attention to two old fools such as Kornheiser and me because they never would have played so desperately, with such pure devotion and passion, certainly not for six overtimes anyway.

And certainly not again on Friday night in the tournament's semifinal, when Syracuse had to play overtime yet again, though only one this time, to get past West Virginia for the right to face Louisville, which might now be the league's best team, in Saturday night's championship game. Rick Pitino, minutes before Syracuse-West Virginia tipped off, said he suspected Syracuse would play great early, then added: "It'll really be a special team if they can keep it up through the second half. That would really be special." And it was, though not on the level of Thursday night's insanity.

It was the damndest basketball game we're going to see this March. I'll bet on that. That's the only downer: Nothing we see the next four weekends will equal the Syracuse-Connecticut six-overtime epic played Thursday night in Madison Square Garden. A Syracuse guard named Jonny Flynn played 67 minutes in one night. He also hit all 16 of his foul shots, on legs he couldn't feel by the end of the game.

There were so many surreal elements that could only be savored the day after, like the fact that victorious Syracuse never led between the end of regulation and the sixth and final extra session. Seven players fouled out, including U-Conn.'s all-American center Hasheem Thabeet. Syracuse senior walk-on Justin Thomas didn't even sniff the court during regulation but entered during extra time to grab . . . the first rebound of his career. Another seldom-used kid, Syracuse's Kris Joseph, came in sometime after midnight to play center for the first time.

It was wonderful, from the three-pointers made to the layups missed to the critical reversal the referees got right (nullifying what would have been the game-winning three-pointer by Syracuse's Eric Devendorf at the end of regulation). As Jim Boeheim said afterward, "It's a lot better winning the greatest game that's ever played . . . "

But "better" to what end? To remember 20 years from now? Yes, certainly. But to advance in the NCAA tournament? Okay, here I go again, less than 24 hours after the Epic, wondering about the value of winning a conference tournament game.

Thing is, while my sense of the importance of the game to the players and coaches has been renewed, my sense of what's better for the team is shifting. There's no way you can tell me that U-Conn., which still has a good chance of receiving a top seed Sunday when the tournament field is announced, isn't better off losing. Jim Calhoun took his team home where they can rest, practice and get ready for NCAA play. If they had played here Friday night, they would have been fried.

I asked Mike Tranghese, the Big East commissioner, whether it's possible the big conference tournaments could hurt more than help a serious contender for the national championship. And he said: "These tournaments can take a lot out of you . . . We've had two teams play four rounds to win the Big East tournament. Syracuse did it, and lost in the first round [of the NCAAs]. And Pitt did it last year, and lost in the second round to Michigan State. In both cases I'll tell you it took a toll. Four days . . . That extra day is really, really hard on a team."

On the other hand, Tranghese said: "We're talking about resilient kids, 18-21 years old, who get four, five days of rest to get ready [for the NCAAs]. The people who say this takes too much out of a team . . . it almost becomes an excuse for the kids; you put it in their minds."

Ultimately, what Tranghese, Calhoun, Boeheim, and for that matter Lou Carnesecca, Rollie Massimino and John Thompson found was that playing this tournament in Madison Square Garden helps the league in a way that outweighs any other consideration. The Big East, back when Dave Gavitt was commissioner, decided to come to Madison Square Garden the moment Big John got Patrick Ewing's promise to attend Georgetown.

"This," Tranghese said, "is our Rose Bowl. We have a lot of schools that don't play [BCS] football. I worry about it less because it's this building in this city."

And the city, with as many things as are always happening here, crackled in the aftermath of Syracuse-U-Conn. The Garden was full again Friday night for the conference tournament semifinals. The players and coaches, Boeheim as much as anybody, were excited about playing another night in the world's most famous arena. There would be time later to be tired, but not now, not here.

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