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Breaking down the Big East tournament

Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs (12) puts up a

Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs (12) puts up a three-point basket against South Florida during the second half of an NCAA basketball game. (March 2, 2011) Credit: AP

For the first time in the history of conference basketball tournaments, two teams that spent most of the season ranked in the top 25 must take part in the first round play-in games of the Big East tournament. Ninth-seeded Connecticut (21-9) opens Tuesday's afternoon session against 16th-seeded DePaul (7-23) at noon at Madison Square Garden, and 10th-seeded Villanova opens the evening session against 15th-seeded South Florida (9-22) at 7.

Here's a rundown of the key elements to watch in the nation's toughest conference tournament:

FAVORITES

No. 1 Pittsburgh (27-4): The Panthers are in the running for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Known for the guard play of Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker, but their versatile front line of center Gary McGhee and forwards Nasir Robinson and Gilbert Brown makes them tough on defense and boards, and they shoot 46.6 percent.

No. 2 Notre Dame (25-5): Despite the loss of All-American Luke Harangody, the Irish have established themselves in the top 10 much of the season thanks to the 1-2 scoring punch of Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis, who averaged a combined 48 points over their final four games. Not a deep team.

No. 4 Syracuse (25-6): After starting 18-0 and then losing six of eight, the Orange have righted themselves with a five-game winning streak. Power forward Rick Jackson has been a double-double machine, and coach Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone remains the best. Watch out if swing man Kris Joseph gets hot.

No. 5 St. John's (20-10): The Red Storm fell to the fifth seed after Seton Hall loss, but they have won nine of 11, including four over ranked opponents, and arrive as one of the nation's hottest teams. If forward Justin Brownlee's scoring picks up, it will relieve pressure on Dwight Hardy and D.J. Kennedy.

DARKHORSE

No. 11 Marquette (18-13): The Golden Eagles have been falling just short of their potential all season, but they have a dependable scoring combination in Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom. A remarkable 12 of their losses have come against teams that have ranked in the top 25. They're in the weaker half of bracket.

THE REST

No. 3 Louisville built its record on being perfect at home.

No. 6 West Virginia's Kevin Jones has been disappointing.

No. 7 Cincinnati finished well, but Yancy Gates is enigmatic.

No. 8 Georgetown's Austin Freeman was preseason player of year pick, but after eight-game midseason win streak, guard Chris Wright underwent surgery on his non-shooting hand and will miss tourney.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Marshon Brooks, Providence, G/F: Nation's second-leading scorer with a 24.8 average. Had high game of 52 vs. Notre Dame and scored 20 or more 25 times.

Ashton Gibbs, Pitt, G: Eighth in country with 3.2 three-pointers made per game and 27th with 46.6 three-point percentage. Tough in the clutch.

Ben Hansbrough, Notre Dame G: Younger brother of ex-North Carolina All-American Tyler Hansbrough leads Irish with 18.4 average; impressive leader.

Dwight Hardy, St. John's, G: Former sixth man leads Red Storm with 17.9 average, but 23.9 in last 11 games, and won the conference's most improved player award.

Kemba Walker, Connecticut, G: Tied for fourth in nation with 23.1 scoring average and has 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Speed to burn.

STORYLINES

Can Big East land record 11 NCAA bids?: The Big East tied a record with eight NCAA bids last season but could get up to 11 if Villanova and Marquette make runs to reach the conference quarterfinals.

St. John's mastery at the Garden: The Red Storm has a 7-1 MSG record, including wins over ranked Duke, Pitt, Georgetown, Notre Dame and UConn. The only loss was to Syracuse, which awaits in the quarterfinals if St. John's wins its second-round game.

Is double bye a blessing or a curse?: Three of the top four seeds with the double bye lost their opener in the quarters last season, and two of the top four lost the previous year. Coaches voted to keep it rather than have all 16 teams play in first round.

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