NEW YORK -- Around 2 p.m. on Saturday, Louisville seniors Terrence Williams and Andre McGee went on a mission out of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Central Park South, in search of Gatorade. While they were stocking up on it at a corner store nearby, they made an impulse buy: four bottles of Martinelli's Sparkling Cider, which, McGee said, "we thought kind of looked like champagne."
They decided it would be funny to smuggle the bottles into Madison Square Garden later in the evening, unbeknownst to their teammates, prior to the Big East tournament final against Syracuse. And after they had beaten the Orange, 76-66, accepted the tournament trophy, danced the Stanky Leg on the Garden floor, and cut down the nets, they retreated to the Knicks' locker room and popped the corks. "Guys were surprised at first," said McGee, "but then they just started pouring it in their mouths, acting like they were Jordan and we had just won a world championship." Junior forward Earl Clark, meanwhile, expressed mock relief that the beverages were non-alcoholic. Real champagne, he said, "might have been a [NCAA] violation."
The Martinelli's bottles were strewn about the locker room floor by the time the media was let in to see the stale-smelling aftermath. The Cardinals were, naturally, ecstatic about winning the school's first Big East Tournament championship, and pulling off the improbable double of winning the loaded league's regular-season and postseason titles.
"We made history," Williams said. "This is the toughest league probably ever, and we won it."
But here, early on Selection Sunday morning in New York, Louisville may have been celebrating something more than just the Big East crown: It may have locked up the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, despite entering the week sitting on the fringe of the No. 1 line.
How could the selection committee deny the Cardinals the top overall position in the S-Curve now? North Carolina may have been missing Ty Lawson this weekend, but the Heels didn't even reach the finals of the ACC tournament, losing to Florida State in Saturday's semis. Pitt lost in its first Big East tournament game, to West Virginia, and UConn bowed out hours later, in a six-overtime thriller to Syracuse. Big Ten champ Michigan State bowed out in its conference-tourney semifinals to Ohio State, Big 12 champ Kansas was upset in its tourney opener by Baylor; Pac-10 champ Washington in its second tourney game to Arizona State. Louisville was the only major-confernce team to win both its league and its tournament -- and it did so against the beastly competition of the Big East.
"We had seen a lot of teams that were No. 1s lose in the their tournaments," Williams said, "so we tried not to become another statistic in that category."
By playing the same style that had them on a 9-0 run to the Big East tourney final -- with hellacious pressure defense and T-Will filling up every category in the box score -- the Cards forced Syracuse to finally hit a wall on Saturday night. The Orange had played 155 minutes of basketball at the Garden prior to the title game, compared to Louisville's 80, and they finally wilted against the Cards' trademark press in the second half, committing 10 turnovers and getting outscored 46-28.
Williams, whom coach Rick Pitino said "had his normal brilliance tonight," broke the Big East tourney's single-game steal record with seven, to go along with six assists, seven rebounds and 11 points. He also received the oversized title trophy -- a golden ball atop a heavy wooden base -- and proceeded to hold on to it, without putting it down, for what seemed like 15 minutes.
"I might put it down in the locker room and then pick it back up after I get out of the shower," he said.
Guard Preston Knowles could only laugh about T-Will's trophy-obsession later, saying, "That's just T-Will being T-Will."
What we saw over the past four weeks leading up to the NCAA tournament was Louisville being Louisville: Pitino's teams, like a bottle of Veuve Clicquot -- but not sparkling cider -- tend to get better with age, picking up steam late in the schedule. This one was no different, putting early-season stumbles against Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV behind it to establish itself as the most dominant defensive club in the country. The Cards have more momentum, and more credentials, than anyone else heading into the NCAA tournament. They deserve to be the the No. 1 overall seed.
The debate heading into bracket-day now turns to UConn, a team that on Feb. 2 came into Freedom Hall and trounced the Cardinals, 68-51; and Memphis, which won 25 straight games to close the season, and, like Louisville, won both its league and league-tourney titles. Will the committee use the final No. 1 seed -- after Louisville, North Carolina and Pitt -- on the Huskies, who lost just one road game and one neutral-court game all season, and finished tied for second in the Big East? Or will they give the Tigers credit for their winning streak, and ignore the glaring weakness of Conference USA, the seventh-toughest league according to the RPI?
In the Louisville locker room, there was a clear answer. Guard Jerry Smith spoke for many of his teammates when he said, "I've gotta go with our conference. ... I definitely think UConn, without a doubt, is a one seed."
But Smith -- even though he's right -- isn't on the selection committee. And so the Huskies were sweating over their status on Saturday, while the Cardinals, the lone major-conference team that took care of its business, were able to just sit back and soak up the moment.