For all the criticism the Big East has received for its move to allow all 16 teams to play in its conference tournament, no league is going to have a better (or at least more noteworthy) opening round of basketball than the one which will be played in the Garden today.
Today's first four games, which include the bottom eight teams in the final league standings, will feature three NCAA Tournament teams, the nation's second-leading scorer, and one of the game's most combative rivalries.
Here's what to watch for on day one:
Connecticut, Villanova and Marquette all Take the Floor
While most bracketologists (Jesus) have Marquette in the field of 68 relatively safely, the Golden Eagles are still the only team in the Big East that could potentially be labeled as a "bubble team." Inconsistent shooting cost Buzz Williams' club in losses at home to Cincinnati and at Seton Hall, a pair of defeats which dropped their Big East record to 9-9 and called their NCAA Tournament resume into question. A win over Providence in day one's last game almost certainly removes all doubt about where they're heading after New York.
Connecticut was unbeaten and ranked No. 4 in the country when the Huskies took the floor at Pittsburgh in their Big East opener on Dec. 27. Today, they will play in the opening game of the Big East Tournament while wearing the title of the No. 9 seed. They'll face DePaul, which comes charging into Madison Square Garden as only DePaul can: off of the most lopsided defeat in the history of Big East basketball.
There isn't a team in the league that could use a solid showing in New York more than Villanova, which dropped six of its last eight games and plummeted from a top-ten national ranking to a double-digit seed in its own conference tournament. Senior guard Corey Stokes' absence due to injury coupled with Corey Fisher's shooting slump are most to blame for the Wildcats' partial collapse. Stokes will reportedly be available on a limited basis Tuesday night against South Florida. I don't think anyone would be especially surprised if 'Nova reeled off three straight or if they got bounced tonight.
' Big East Career Comes to a Close
Providence senior Marshon Brooks is the nation's second-leading scorer at just under 25 ppg, but he'll be playing to keep his college career alive every time he takes the floor from here on out. Brooks will take center stage tonight around 9:30 against a Marquette team that has a tendency to get goaded into shootouts, making it potentially the sexiest game of day one.
A year ago, Providence fell to Seton Hall, 109-106 on day one. Brooks, who set the Big East record for points in a game with 52 against Notre Dame last month, was "held" to just 15 points in that game. It's unlikely he's kept below 20 tonight or any game after, should the Friars survive and advance.
Seton Hall vs. Rutgers
The latest edition of the Turnpike War take place in today's second game and will feature a pair of teams playing to keep their seasons alive. They archrivals each won on the other's home floor during the regular season.
"I definitely think it's destiny that we're playing them for a third time at the Garden," said Seton Hall's Patrik Auda, a freshman forward who is coming off a career-high 14 points in Saturday's win over Marquette. "I think everybody is really pumped up for the game and we really want to let them know who is No. 1 in Jersey."
Seton Hall quietly won seven Big East games in Kevin Willard's first year in Jersey, and ended the regular season with upset victories over St. John's and Marquette. The Scarlet Knights were consistently competitive, but still tasted victory just twice over their last 11 games.
"Any time you are going to face your in-state rival, there's an added motivation there, a familiarity there," Rutgers coach Mike Rice said. "It's exciting to get a chance to play them again. Against your rival you'd always like to get the last word, so to speak."
"It's gonna come down to the wire," Willard said. "It's gonna be a slugfest."
Day One Schedule
9. Connecticut vs. 16. DePaul - Noon, ESPN2
12. Seton Hall vs. 13. Rutgers - 2:00, ESPN2
10. Villanova vs. 15. South Florida - 7:00, ESPNU
11. Marquette vs. 14. Providence - 9:00, ESPNU
Predicted All Day-One Team
Day One Predictions
Connecticut 73, DePaul 56
Seton Hall 74, Rutgers 67
Villanova 66, South Florida 61
Marquette 84, Providence 81
Predicted 2011 ESPN Big East Tournament Theme Song
Something poppy sung by a female.
Predicted Number of People Who Hate the 2011 Big East Tournament Theme Song