Basketball is king in Kentucky (yes, we already know this). It far outweighs any sport played by humans and the races run by horses, even though those may come close. And while basketball is everything, the game may not be bigger than it is when it’s paired with the bright lights of New York City.
When Louisville last left the Big Apple this time of year it was March 16, 2013. Montrezl Harrell had scored 20 points to lead the Cardinals over Syracuse to their third Big East championship in five years. They were the final champions of the “old Big East”. Of course, they were also on their way to the promised land later that year in Atlanta.
In the year prior, Louisville had won an awfully low-scoring affair (50-44) at The Garden over Cincinnati to claim the 2012 Big East crown. Chris Smith’s 15 points and 13 more from Kyle Kuric led the way. We don’t need to talk about how that NCAA tournament went or how the 2011 Big East final ended up.
In 2009, the Cards beat Syracuse for the conference title behind double-figure efforts from the likes of Samardo Samuels, Preston Knowles and Earl Clark. That was the precursor to an Elite 8 run.
The point here is this: had it not been for a guy named Kemba Walker, Louisville would have won four of the last five Big East titles before the conference landscape was shaken up. In each of those Big East runs, the Cardinals had to beat multiple top-25 teams to claim the title. This year’s Louisville squad will need to do the same, presumably starting with Duke tomorrow afternoon in their return to New York City for their second ACC Tournament.
There’s no way to draw many conclusions or informative comparisons about this Louisville team with respect to the others mentioned here, everything is different with the ACC, a different borough and a different arena. But there’s still something comfortably familiar with heading to the Big Apple again for basketball in March that wasn’t there two years ago.
In the Cards’ first foray into the ACC Tournament, they were faced with a virtual home game in Greensboro for a tough North Carolina squad. Having been in the building for that game at the tournament’s most traditional site, there’s no question that the atmosphere played a factor.
In New York, those home-court advantages should be tempered outside of the bulk of the ACC’s home turf. That’s certainly not to say that fans of Duke, UNC and others won’t travel well and won’t have alumni bases show up. But Rick Pitino and his Cardinal teams have long looked comfortable in Pitino’s home city when March rolls around.
Barclays Center doesn’t have the same history as Madison Square Garden, and it’s not in the heart of Manhattan where the city seems to have its most “larger-than-life” feel. Still, when you turn on the TV tomorrow afternoon, you’ll find that it features the bright lights of NYC all the same, and not just in a figurative way.
There’s still something special about playing big time hoops in that city, and it won’t be lost on Rick Pitino or his team as they gear up for what we all hope will be the beginning of a big month.
Welcome back, tournament basketball. We missed you so, so much.