- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Eighteen games against some of the best college teams in the country — playing three times a week, every week, for over two months — can take its toll. Throw in a week against that same top-flight competition in the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden and it’s not hard to see why no Big East team has won a national title since 2004.

This year, the top conference in the nation has 11 teams in the NCAA tournament trying to end that drought. Three of them — Southeast No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, West No. 3 seed Connecticut and West No. 6 seed Cincinnati — start their journeys at Verizon Center, and they understand it’s an uphill climb after a grueling regular season.

“A lot of conferences aren’t as deep as we are; we play an NCAA tournament game every night, whereas a lot of teams take breaks where they have pushover teams,” Cincinnati big man Anthony McClain said Wednesday. “We don’t have pushover teams. If we don’t play well, we can get beat by anybody.”

It’s a grind, as several players admitted during their workout day in Washington before opening the tournament Thursday. UConn will face 14th-seeded Bucknell, Pitt will face 16th-seeded UNC-Asheville and Cincinnati will face 11th-seeded Missouri, bringing a major Big East flavor to Verizon Center.

“A lot of people can blame it on the grueling season of the Big East, but at the same time mentally you just gotta be ready each and every game — execute, especially in the NCAA tournament,” Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs said. “It’s one and done from here on, so it’s the best time. You just gotta keep going.”

There’s an expectation — with 11 teams still playing — that one of them will win the national title, even though the past six seasons the Big East has come up dry on hardware. CBS Sports analysts Clark Kellogg and Greg Anthony blamed that on the conference having a lot of good teams and not one great team.

“Just because you play in a great conference doesn’t mean that you’re gonna be superior to the teams you’re gotta square off against,” Kellogg said.

Or, as Anthony put it: “What makes the Big East great is not the top, it’s the totality. And I think that’s what’s been interesting but it’s also what sets them up to be disappointing to a lot of people: When they get in the tournament because they expect these teams to overwhelm you, and they’re not those types of teams.”

UConn and Pitt, specifically, think they can buck that trend. Pitt has just five losses this season — all to tournament teams and by a combined 18 points. UConn dealt the top-seeded Panthers one of those defeats in the Big East tournament, which it went on to capture.

Because of that run and the rugged conference schedule, there’s an awful lot of confidence coming from the Huskies, who aren’t worried about being run down.

“It’s all about the chemistry and playing together,” UConn’s Charles Okwandu said. “This team has been playing together since the fall. If we keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing, I think we’ll win the tournament.”

To do so, it might have to go through four Big East opponents, depending on how the tournament falls. Cincinnati could be waiting in the second round. Bearcats redshirt freshman guard Sean Kilpatrick said having such a tough schedule is the perfect preparation no matter who’s up next in the NCAA tournament.

“It did [prepare the Bearcats], but this is what you’ve been recruited for,” he said. “You’ve been recruited to come in the Big East to play against top-notch players. This is what you’ve been asking for.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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