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Big East Tournament set to begin today

If the upcoming NCAA Tournament is the big dance, consider this week’s Big East Tournament the spring formal.

The nation’s strongest conference is expected to take 10 of the 36 NCAA at-large tournament bids.

First round action in Madison Square Garden tips off today at noon on ESPN 2, with ninth-seed Connecticut taking on 16th-seed DePaul. The Huskies have had success all season — finishing 21st in the nation — but are coming off back-to-back losses to West Virginia and Notre Dame.

DePaul has won only one conference game this year and is without its leading scorer, freshman Cleveland Melvin. The two teams met Jan. 15, with the Huskies winning 82-62 with the Big East’s second leading scorer, Kemba Walker, scoring 31 points in that game. The winner will go on to play eighth-seed Georgetown in the second round.

After that, 12th-seed Seton Hall will face 13th-seed Rutgers at 2 p.m. These middle-of-the-pack teams split their conference series this season, with the road team winning both times.

Whichever team advances from that game should give the waiting Red Storm of St. John’s some trouble — the Pirates upset them March 3 and the Scarlet Knights lost by two Feb. 2.

At 7 p.m., the 15th-seed Bulls get their shot at Villanova on The Wildcats won their first meeting Jan. 6, 83-71. Villanova has lost four straight, with their leading scorer Corey Fisher bothered by severe tendinitis in his knee, while USF is coming off of losses to Pittsburgh and St. John’s.

The winner gets to play seventh-seed Cincinnati in the second round. The Bulls lost to the Bearcats Jan. 12, 74-66. Villanova defeated Cincinnati 72-61 Jan. 9.

Tonight’s late game at 9 will feature 11th-seed Marquette and 14th-seed Providence. The Marquette Golden Eagles took down the Friars on Feb. 27, 86-62. Marquette hopes to reproduce that defensive effort as it held the Big East’s leading scorer, Marshon Brooks, at 25 points per game, to 17.

Brooks knows how to turn it on, scoring a Big East-record 52 points in a one-point loss to Notre Dame. The winner will take on West Virginia in the second round. The Mountaineers beat Providence in the regular season, but lost at Marquette on Jan. 1, 79-74.

The second-round games will be played tomorrow at the same times. Waiting in the third round are the conference’s top four teams: Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Louisville and Syracuse.

Louisville is the only team of the four to lose its last game with a 72-70 defeat at the hands of West Virginia. The other three conference elites have won at least their last two. The top four seeds will play in the quarterfinals Thursday, with the championship game set for Saturday at 9 p.m.