The Big East in 2011 was jam-packed with talent — having nine teams ranked in the AP Top 25 by conference tournament time — and of course, holding to the conference standard, the tournament did not disappoint.
Even the first round games featuring the lower-ranked teams in the conference had some exciting moments.
Rutgers-Seton Hall had a buzzer-beater to force overtime, while USF snuck past Villanova (currently No. 4 in the nation) in a one-point game and Marquette walloped Providence (currently the reigning Big East champ).
This was commonplace in one of the more unpredictable leagues and league tournaments.
When a tournament features that many ranked teams, it prevents a hierarchy from forming.
Teams seeded first or second in the conference had byes to the third round, so they didn’t even have an opportunity to meet a doormat team. They were either playing a low-seeded team — who had just run through two conference adversaries — with the momentum of a buzz saw or one of the other seven teams deemed formidable for NCAA tournament contention by the Associated Press.
MARCH 10, 2011
It was the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament in Madison Square Garden, so for the 16-team league it meant the third day in a row where eight teams would battle for four open spots.
Despite finishing the regular season at No. 21 in the AP Top 25, Connecticut entered the conference championship as a No. 9 seed.
They were the highest-seeded team in the tournament playing Tuesday games and had just blown out basement-dwelling DePaul and 22nd-ranked team in the country, Georgetown.
It was the deadly combination of buzz saw and formidable foe and the team given the task of derailing the Huskies was the conference’s top-seed and nation’s No. 3, Pittsburgh.
Connecticut’s Kemba Walker combined for 54 points in the first two rounds and although he didn’t need to, he put the team on his back.
The Huskies had a pretty deep roster — Alex Oriakhi and Jeremy Lamb were in the starting lineup and Shabazz Napier was coming off the bench — but Walker took it upon himself on multiple occasions to come up big for the win.
There were 12 seconds left in Connecticut’s game with Pittsburgh and the opportunity came once again for Walker.
The game was tied 74-74 and Walker got the in-bounds pass in the corner near half court.
He paused, taking a few dribbles on top of the Reese’s logo on the court, waiting for a screen from Jamal Coombs-McDaniel.
Pittsburgh’s Gary McGee, an NABC All-Star, was stalking Coombs-McDaniel and Brad Wannamaker guarded the perimeter with an eye on Walker. When the screen came, McGhee peeled off Coombs-McDaniel and stayed on Walker.
Walker stalled his drive, pulled back and called for an isolation.
He wasn’t the only person in the arena to recognize the mismatch with the 6-foot-11 McGhee. Wannamaker wanted to switch back to the original coverage, refusing to take a foot out of the paint. The dribble-drive past McGhee seemed inevitable. ESPN color commentator Fran Fraschilla identified the mistmatch immediately.
Walker began his move — starting toward the right elbow, pulling back with a crossover that brought him back outside the perimeter. McGhee still had a hand up — but it wasn’t in anyone’s face. He was all sorts of turned around.
Walker pounced toward the free-throw line with his left. McGhee pulled a full 180 and eventually checked Walker with his left hand. While falling toward the basket, he was woefully unprepared for Walker’s second crossover.
With two seconds remaining and both feet barely inside the perimeter, Walker lofted a jumper that found the bottom of the net as time expired.
Where was Gary McGhee?
Shook, rattled and rolling toward 8th Avenue, nobody in the world envied McGhee.
Surely, this wasn’t the start of Walker’s heroics, but it quite possibly could have been the boiling point for what turned out to be an entertaining championship run.
He had 33 points and 12 rebounds in an overtime (just one) game against Syracuse in the next round. He led the Huskies in the title game against Louisville with 19 points, winning the Big East tournament as a nine seed.
Playing as a three seed in the NCAA tournament, Connecticut rolled Bucknell, conference-rival Cincinnati and San Diego State in the first three rounds. Walker combined for 87 points in those three games, leading the team in each contest.
The fun picked back up again when Connecticut had to hold off Arizona in the Elite Eight, winning 65-63 with (you guessed it) Walker leading the team with 20 points.
Connecticut, again, had to hold off a big comeback in the Final Four against Kentucky. Walker’s 18 points in that game protected the Huskies 10-point halftime lead and UConn was playing for a championship after a 56-55 win.
The Huskies were once again the buzz saw and the formidable foe, and things went much smoother in the finals. UConn rolled Butler 53-41, led once again by Walker’s 16 points.
Walker finished the NCAA tournament with 141 points, giving him 291 in the 11 games in the postseason. Although the ending was somewhat anti-climactic, Walker stole the show in the college basketball world for nearly a month, although there was no shortage of interesting storylines in the tournament.
The other half of the Final Four that year featured VCU, a team that had started the tournament in a play-in game as an 11 seed making the program’s first Final Four appearance, and Butler, the school that built a long-standing basketball tradition at the Hinkle Fieldhouse, also making it’s first Final Four.
The championship win was Connecticut’s third (the fourth coming in 2014, led by a charge similar to Walker’s thanks to Napier) and Kentucky was working on its eighth title (eventually breaking through in the following season).
It was an uncommon Final Four, featuring teams from all walks of life playing entertaining basketball because after all …
This is March.