- Associated Press - Monday, March 21, 2011

STORRS, CONN. (AP) - With the first round of the women’s NCAA tournament complete, the Big East can brag it’s the top conference in the country.

They received a record nine bids _ headlined by top-seeded Connecticut _ and after the opening round, all the teams are still playing. The same thing can’t be said for the Big East men’s programs who only have two teams left heading into the regional semifinals.

“This weekend, we again made a statement about our conference’s strength as all nine advanced to the second round,” Big East commissioner John Marinatto said. “Although such an accomplishment requires some degree of good fortune, it also clearly illustrates the quality and depth of our programs and is why the Big East Conference is considered one of our nation’s premier leaders in women’s basketball.”

Unlike the men’s tournament where brackets were busted by the likes of Virginia Commonwealth, Richmond, and Butler, the women’s draw has pretty much held to form so far. The four No. 1 seeds breezed through the first round and none of the top five teams in any of the regions lost, although fourth-seeded Kentucky needed overtime to beat Hampton.

Only three double-digit seeds advanced out of the first round in the women’s bracket and it would be tough to call any of those huge upsets based on the success the programs had this season.

All season long, the Big East has proved its dominance over the rest of the country. The nine NCAA tournament teams went 101-21 (83 percent) out of conference. Six of the nine victories in the opening round were by double digits.

“I think it proves what we’ve been saying all year that we are a great conference top to bottom,” St. John’s coach Kim Barnes Arico told The Associated Press by phone from Stanford on Sunday night.

As great as that record first round was for the conference, it will be extremely tough to continue that success as six of the nine teams will have to play on their opponents home court, including the Red Storm, who will face the top-seeded Cardinal on Monday night.

Even worse, three of the schools will have to face No. 1 seeds at home, including St. John’s.

Rutgers and Notre Dame have already beaten opponents at home to advance.

“It says a lot about our conference,” West Virginia coach Mike Carey said. “Teams play different styles and you’ve got to be ready in conference play and it really gets you ready for the NCAAs.”

DePaul may have had the toughest break in the draw as the third-seeded Blue Demons will need to beat No. 6 Penn State on its home floor to make the regional semifinals for the first time since 2006.

“Basketball is a very, very different game on the road for many reasons,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno said Sunday, highlighting one reason in particular. “You’ve got to put that little ball into that little ring. It’s easier to do that at home than on the road, not just in the tournament, but in your league.”

No. 11 Gonzaga was the lowest-seeded team to advance, knocking off Iowa. It definitely helped that the Zags were playing at home in front of 6,000 fans. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot had a career-high 34 points and is just 10 away from becoming the first player _ men’s or women’s _ to have 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in her career.

Next up for the Zags is No. 3 UCLA.

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