- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2011

College basketball fans at Verizon Center are very used to Big East basketball, with Georgetown playing its home games in Chinatown. When the NCAA tournament opens Thursday in Washington, the Hoyas will be in Chicago, but D.C. fans will get a heaping helping of the Big East.

Southeast No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, West No. 3 seed UConn and West No. 6 seed Cincinnati are coming to Washington for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament. They’re joined by Southeast No. 8 Butler, Southeast No. 9 Old Dominion, West No. 11 Missouri, West No. 14 Bucknell and either UNC-Asheville or Arkansas-Little Rock, who will play for the No. 16 seed in the Southeast Region.

Pitt (27-5) is the class of the group, featuring electric guard Ashton Gibbs, who shoots 48 percent from beyond the arc and averages 16.7 points a game. The Panthers will face the winner of the play-in game between Big South Conference champion UNC Asheville (19-13) and Sun Belt champion Arkansas-Little Rock (19-16).

As good as Gibbs is – first-team all-Big East – he isn’t even the most talented player at Verizon Center this week. That honor goes to UConn’s Kemba Walker, a national player of the year candidate. The Huskies had to win five games in five days at Madison Square Garden to take the conference tournament title, but Walker just about negates that fatigue factor.

“I’d love to have a kid that has that kind of concentration, that kind of stamina and that kind of motivation,” ex-Georgetown coach John Thompson said on radio Sunday night. One of UConn’s Big East tournament victories came against the Hoyas.

Walker is averaging 23.5 points a game and scored 130 points in 190 minutes during the Big East tournament.

UConn faces Patriot League champion Bucknell (25-8), which will try to pull off a 3-14 upset as it did in 2005 against Kansas.

Assuming UConn survives, it could face a Big East rival Cincinnati (25-8). This appears to be the first time in NCAA tournament history that conference rivals can play each other in the second round – and it could happen elsewhere this weekend with Syracuse and Marquette as well.

Missouri (23-10) is a young team that likes to press and could put a scare into the Bearcats.

“I think Missouri is a team that could definitely be higher than an 11, a team that’s tournament-ready in terms of the style that they play,” Thompson said.

In the pod with Pitt is the No. 8 vs. No. 9 seed matchup between Butler of the Horizon League and Old Dominion of the Colonial Athletic Association, which has three teams (including George Mason) in the field.

Butler (23-9) came within a buzzer-beating jumper of beating Duke for the national title last season but the Horizon League tournament champions get a tough draw in Old Dominion. The Monarchs (27-6) cruise into the NCAA tournament on a nine-game winning streak. The last time they lost was Feb. 5 at Mason.

Pitt might have the easiest road to the Final Four of any No. 1 seed.

“I think it shapes up pretty well for Pitt playing in Washington D.C., you’d expect them to get out of the opening weekend,” former NBA guard and CBS Sports analyst Steve Kerr said Sunday night. “Obviously you never know, but they’re pretty decent matchups for them.”

Full schedule of first-round games at Verizon Center

Thursday –

Southeast Region

No. 1 Pittsburgh vs. No. 16 UNC Ashville or Arkansas-Little Rock, Approximately 3 p.m.

No. 8 Butler vs. No. 9 Old Dominion, 12:40 p.m.

West Region

No. 3 Connecticut vs. No. 14 Bucknell, 7:20 p.m.

No. 6 Cincinnati vs. No. 11 Missouri, Approximately 9:40 p.m.

* Second-round games will be played Saturday.