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_

John Calipari reminds Kentucky fans to remain classy in defeat

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Before traveling to Phoenix for the Final Four festivities, Kentucky head coach John Calipari used his Twitter account in an effort to diffuse the anger members of Big Blue Nation have directed at a referee following a heartbreaking loss in the Elite Eight.

In the days following the season-ending loss to North Carolina, some fans — not all — have harassed official John Higgins. They’ve flooded the Facebook page of his roofing business, leaving negative reviews and lowering his company’s star rating. Some have gone even more extreme, going as far as sending death threats over the phone.

Based on the replies, some have received the message. Others haven’t. The latter, despite it being a small but vocal group, can, unfortunately, paint a fan base with a broad brush.

Mark Emmert: NCAA Board of Governors to meet ‘in the next few days’ to determine N.C.’s tournament standing

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Late on Wednesday night, the state of North Carolina reached an agreement to repeal the controversial and discriminatory House Bill 2 law, which is commonly known as the bathroom bill.

The NCAA had given the state a deadline of Thursday morning to make a change in this law or they would miss out on hosting NCAA tournament game until the 2022 season, so it’s not hard to connect the dots here. The pressure the NCAA asserted on the state helped create a change.

The question is just how much of a change, as many believe that the repeal does not do enough to change what is discriminatory about the law.

“What distinguished North Carolina,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said, “there were four distinct problems that the board had with that bill, and they removed some of them but not all of them. If you removed two or three of them, is that enough?”

The NCAA Board of Governors have stretched out the process of determining future tournament sites as far as possible, Emmert said, meaning that a decision on this new bill will be made soon.

“Because this happened on such short notice, we have to find a time to get together with the board, and that will probably happen in the next few days,” Emmert said, and in those meetings, the board “will determine if this [new] bill is sufficient change.”

“I’m personally very pleased they have a bill to debate and discuss. Hopefully we can be in a place where we can announce the board’s decision early next week.”

Gonzaga’s Mark Few named AP Coach of the Year

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Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has added to his program’s banner season with an individual award, being named AP Coach of the Year on Thursday afternoon.

Few led the Bulldogs to their first Final Four. The Zags enter the national semifinal with a 36-1 record. Up until Feb. 25, they were flirting with a perfect season. A loss to BYU is currently the only blemish on their season.

Few also won his 500th career game during the course of the 2016-17 season. Since 2014, two coaches from outside the major conferences have earned his honor. Gregg Marshall was named AP Coach of the Year in 2014 after leading the Shockers to a perfect regular season.

This was a very competitive race this season. Sean Miller lost two players expected to be key pieces this season — and had Allonzo Trier miss 19 games — but guided Arizona to the Pac-12 Tournament championship. Jay Wright led Villanova to another Big East title despite two cornerstone pieces — Ryan Arcidiancono and Daniel Ochefu — gone from last season’s national championship team. For a while, Baylor’s Scott Drew seemed to be the favorite. The Bears didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason top-25 poll but went on to earn a No. 1 ranking.

Few’s season continues on Saturday against South Carolina.

Frank Mason is named AP Player of the Year

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Kansas point guard Frank Mason III was named the AP Player of the Year on Thursday afternoon.

The senior floor general for the Jayhawks headlined the AP All-American team, which included UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, Villanova Swingman Josh Hart, Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan and North Carolina small forward Justin Jackson.

Mason averaged 20.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and shot 49 percent from behind the 3-point line during the 2016-17 season. He helped guide Kansas to its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title.

He becomes the fourth senior in a row to win the award, preceded by Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminksy and Creighton’s Doug McDermott.

He had previously been named player of the year by NBC Sports.

TJ Leaf declares for the 2017 NBA Draft

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UCLA freshman forward TJ Leaf announced he is declaring for the 2017 NBA Draft on Thursday afternoon.

The 6-foot-10 Leaf averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. His shooting numbers were also impressive, connecting on 62 percent of his field goals, including 27-of-58 from beyond the 3-point arc.

This news comes six days after Lonzo Ball officially announced he had played his last game at UCLA. Neither move is shocking, with Ball in the running for the No. 1 overall pick and Leaf also pegged as a first round selection.

The Bruins will have quite a bit of turnover next season with guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton exhausting their eligibility. UCLA head coach Steve Alford has a six-man recruiting class set to come in to help replenish the roster. It’s led by versatile forward Kris Wilkes, point guard Jaylen Hands, and big men Cody Riley and Jalen Hill.