Tourney champion Louisville is face of changing Big East

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NEW YORK–Welcome to the future of the Big East.

For the first time in the history of the conference, the tournament title game featured two teams who were not members of the league at the time of its formation, and this is what we got.

In front of a crowd that was at less than capacity at Madison Square Garden, Louisville took control early and beat fourth-seeded Cincinnati, 50-44, to win the Big East tournament title on Saturday night in New York City.

“[The championship] is special because I love coaching these guys,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “We’ve got a great group. You saw how much enthusiasm they had for winning that championship. It means so much to them to win.”

Chris Smith led Louisville in scoring with 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Kyle Kuric added 13 points.

But, man, it wasn’t pretty.

In a tournament that has seen slow, grinding games from USF, Villanova, and Louisville before, the title game followed suit.

The Cardinals shot just 35% from the floor and had 14 turnovers. They mustered just 50 points.

Of course, credit is due to their defense, which kept Cincinnati to 44 points and 3-of-14 shooting from beyond the arc. Center Gorgui Dieng had three blocks and continued to anchor the middle of the Cardinal defense.

“We knew it was going to take defense to win this game,” said Pitino. “We thought it was going to take offense to beat Marquette, we thought it was going to take defense to win this one.”

Point guard Peyton Siva won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, answering the questions of his early-season critics.

“You could tell he stepped into the role we needed him to play,” said Kuric. “The Peyton that we’re all used to, you could tell he didn’t want to lose and he wasn’t going to let us lose.”

Louisville has gained momentum in this tournament, but with such difficulties shooting the ball, it’s hard to say how far Louisville can go in the NCAA’s, now that they have punched their automatic ticket.

Will we see the team that shot 56% from the floor in Friday night’s big win over Notre Dame, or will the sluggish offense of Saturday night prevail?

But this game speaks to a larger point, less related to the actual performance of these two teams tonight, and more to the direction of the league.

This is not an isolated incident. This is the future.

With Syracuse and Pitt bolting for the ACC, and the suggestion that they could leave even earlier than expected, the complexion of the league is changing.

“I’m a traditionalist, and I’m very disappointed that teams are leaving, certainly,” said Pitino. “That’s the worst thing about [college basketball] culture: The gratification is so short, and the way they handle failure is so short…Everybody wants change nowadays. Let’s go to this league…It’s bizarre how everybody just leaves.”

Syracuse has historically owned Madison Square Garden; it’s almost the Carrier Dome South. But cut out the Orange and add Conference-USA transplants, and you’re left with the scene we saw on Saturday night.

To be clear, no one here is lamenting the death of a power conference. Far from it.

Cincinnati and Louisville are strong national programs. The Big East is adding more quality schools in Memphis, Temple, and others, but the variable that changes is that intangible, difficult-to-quantify feel.

Villanova coach Jay Wright described it earlier in the year: that feeling of taking his team on a bus and heading up the New Jersey Turnpike to play at Madison Square Garden.

With expansion, that may be lost.

In a game that was close throughout on Saturday night, there was less than a handful of “loud” moments and never a time that was truly deafening in the Garden. A nationally televised championship game for a conference that will send the most teams to the NCAA tournament and I could hear myself think throughout.

The Big East still retains some of its Northeast, old school, blue-collar swagger. Villanova is still here. Georgetown is a mainstay. Providence, St. John’s, and Rutgers are programs on the rise. But how would a Memphis-Marquette Big East final look, somewhere down the line? Does that pack the Garden? Does that have the same glow on the marquee as Georgetown-Syracuse?

It’s a transition in changing times. It’s an inevitable shift in the increasingly nationalized business of college sports. It becomes clearer as the realignment dust settles.

Oh, and in case you forgot, Louisville is headed to the NCAA tournament.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

No. 2 Michigan State beats Wisconsin, wraps up Big Ten

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Cassius Winston scored 20 points and went 6 for 6 from the 3-point line, and No. 2 Michigan State held off Wisconsin 68-63 on Sunday to earn the outright regular-season Big Ten title.

Winston hit two 3s during an 11-2 run in the second half — the second with a defender in his face from well beyond the arc — to lead the Spartans (28-3, 16-2).

Brad Davison finished with 30 points for Wisconsin (14-17, 7-11), including a 3 with 4.7 seconds left that had hometown fans holding out hope for an upset.

Miles Bridges wrapped up the Spartans’ 12th straight win with two foul shots.

It was a milestone victory in what has been a challenging season off the court for Michigan State basketball.

One issue involved Bridges. The star forward had 10 points on 3-of-15 shooting in his first game since getting cleared by the NCAA following a Yahoo! Sports article on Friday that identified him as one of many players who may have received improper benefits.

Winston and Nick Ward, who had 14 points, picked up the scoring slack. Winston’s 3 with 4:45 left gave the Spartans a 58-51 lead, a huge cushion in what had been a tight game.

Davison nearly single-handedly brought Wisconsin back, giving the Badgers a huge boost even after aggravating a left shoulder injury. The freshman sprinted to the locker room with a trainer with about 14 minutes left before returning a couple minutes later and checking right back into the game to rousing applause.

He scored Wisconsin’s next six points, popping perimeter jumpers to electrify an already vocal home crowd in the regular season finale.

The teams dueled the rest of the way until Bridges’ late foul shots.

Michigan State muscled its way to a 34-27 halftime lead by taking control of the paint early before softening up the perimeter for Winston. The sophomore sharpshooter made 3 of 4 from beyond the arc in the first half, with a couple buckets coming quickly in transition.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: Documents in the Yahoo! story showed that the star forward may have improperly accepted benefits from an agency implicated in a federal investigation into bribery and other misdeeds in college basketball. The team said Saturday that the school’s compliance office conducted a “thorough internal review” and presented findings to the NCAA, which then cleared Bridges. … The Spartans had too much bulk up front for Wisconsin, building an early edge on points in the paint and finishing with a 40-28 edge on the boards.

Wisconsin: The team honored three reserve seniors in its final regular-season game, including fifth-year forward Aaron Moesch. He is the last link to the Badgers’ back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2014 and ’15, a little-used backup on each of those squads. The Badgers’ reliance on freshmen to play key roles in the rotation, especially in the backcourt, led to growing pains this season. They’ve shown signs of maturity of late, winning three straight games before Sunday.

UP NEXT

Michigan State: Opens play in the conference tournament in New York on Friday after earning a double bye as the top seed.

Wisconsin: Locked into the Big Ten tourney as the No. 9 seed, where it will play Maryland on Thursday.

No. 11 Cincinnati rallies for 82-74 win over Tulsa

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Gary Clark led a 24-4 run that put Cincinnati ahead to stay early in the second half, and the 11th-ranked Bearcats held on for an 82-74 victory over Tulsa on Sunday that preserved their one-game lead in the American Athletic Conference heading into the final week.

Cincinnati (25-4, 14-2) stayed ahead of No. 13 Wichita State (23-5, 13-3) in the race for the regular-season title. The Shockers won on Cincinnati’s home court 76-72 a week ago.

Wichita State plays at UCF on Thursday and hosts Cincinnati next Sunday in a potential showdown game. The Bearcats play at Tulane on Thursday before heading to Wichita State.

The Bearcats struggled defensively, giving up a season-high 14 3-pointers, but made a season-high 15 from beyond the arc. Clark and Jarron Cumberland had 17 points apiece.

Tulsa (17-11, 10-7) led by eight points early in the second before Clark scored during the decisive run. Junior Etou scored 21 for Tulsa, which had its six-game winning streak snapped.

Cincinnati completed its season playing at Northern Kentucky University while its on-campus arena is renovated, going 14-1 at BB&T Arena.

BIG PICTURE

Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane is wrapping up a regular season that marks a step up for the program. Tulsa went 15-17 last season and 8-10 in the AAC, finishing seventh. It’s fourth in the league with two games to go.

Cincinnati: Even though the Bearcats rank second nationally in defense, they’d given up a lot of open shots in the previous two games, a concern to coach Mick Cronin. The Golden Hurricane got plenty of those, too, while shooting 59 percent in the first half. The Golden Hurricane led 47-44 at the break, the most points Cincinnati has allowed in a half this season.

UP NEXT

Tulsa: Golden Hurricane plays at East Carolina on Thursday. Tulsa opened AAC play by beating ECU 79-53 on Dec. 28.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats have won four straight and 14 of 15 against Tulane, including a 78-61 victory last season.

Bubble Banter: Sunday Funday on the bubble

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Sunday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

YET TO PLAY

TEMPLE
UCLA
PENN STATE
NEBRASKA
N.C. STATE

Georgia’s Mark Fox ‘disgusted’ by investigation into college basketball

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Georgia head coach Mark Fox did not hold back when asked about the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball, calling is “disgusting” and pleading with coaches and the institutions that employ them to do right.

“It starts with our coaches, and then you ask how the NCAA has handled it,” Fox said. “The NCAA is made up of member institutions. How are the institutions handling it? That’d be my first question. How are they handling it? Putting their head in the sand and looking the other way? I’m past anger, sadness. It’s just disgusting, and we’re really hurting the game, and the game has been so good to everybody.”

Fox is in a difficult position. He’s regarded as one of the nicer coaches in the business and is considered to be ‘clean’. He team also appears headed for another NIT, which could end up costing him his job.

“We’ve had some situations where we didn’t get players because of that reason, and other teams have, too,” Fox said.

“I’m disgusted,” he added. “I’m disgusted with how people have treated our game. It’s absolutely disgusting.”

Cuonzo Martin: ‘No timetable’ for a Michael Porter Jr. return

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There still is not clarity on whether or not Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr. will return to the court this season.

On Saturday, he participated in Missouri’s shootaround at Kentucky but did not run through warmups and did not play in the game.

“I don’t have a timeline,” Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said after Saturday’s 87-66 loss. “He wants to play.”

“We have to make sure he’s ready to go.”

Porter has only had one full practice since he underwent surgery on his back in November, and that came on Friday. A source confirmed to NBC Sports that Porter was, in fact, cleared for full contact on Thursday afternoon after a visit with a doctor.

Porter is expected to continue practicing with the team. He told reporters earlier this month that he would like to get a few games prior to the start of tournament play if he happens to take part in any games.