NEW YORK (AP) -The Big East played an 18-game conference schedule for the first time. Despite all the griping from coaches last summer, it may turn out to be a good thing on Selection Sunday.
``Most of the concerns about the 18-game schedule were about costing us NCAA bids, but I think we all learned how to manage and maneuver,'' Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. ``If we get more bids, there will be less complaining.''
The Big East had six teams in the field of 65 last year, with Syracuse's omission considered unfair by many. In 2006, the Big East had a record eight teams invited, the number thrown around this season as the conference tournament begins Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
``We have a legitimate eight, nine teams vying for the NCAA tournament,'' Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. ``The 18-game schedule hardened some teams.''
John Thompson III, whose Georgetown team is looking for a second straight sweep of the regular-season and tournament titles, agreed the two extra conference games made a difference.
``This year, top to bottom, and with the expanded schedule, it was competitive as I can remember being a part of,'' Thompson said. ``The difference in teams at the top and bottom is minimal and you saw it all season. Right now it's brutal with the different styles, the coaching and the players. It's just brutal.''
Villanova (19-11) and Syracuse (19-12), the eighth and ninth seeds with 9-9 conference records and the teams many consider facing a win-or-else situation as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned, open the Big East tournament Wednesday.
``I think it's right on,'' Villanova coach Jay Wright said when asked if the perception of the game with Syracuse was correct. ``Both of us are in great position. I wouldn't want it any other way. You always have a chance to get yourself right because you're always playing other big teams and you don't have to hope about somebody else winning or losing. If we beat them I think we do have a great chance.''
Whichever team wins will face top-seeded and ninth-ranked Georgetown (25-4) in Thursday's quarterfinals.
Thompson, who took the Hoyas to the Final Four last season, isn't worried about facing a team with its postseason life on the line.
``Whoever comes out we'll prepare for. That does not change our mind-set. We have to have the mind-set that we are desperate also,'' he said. ``Winning games, every half, every possession is important and that hardness as Jim Calhoun referred to is how the league has hardened teams up.''
Fifth-seeded West Virginia (22-9) plays No. 12 Providence (15-15) in the first round with the winner meeting fourth-seeded and 15th-ranked Connecticut (24-7) on Thursday.
``We had a terrific season except for Providence,'' Calhoun said with a laugh, referring to the Huskies' two losses to the Friars.
In Wednesday night's first-round doubleheader, seventh-seeded Pittsburgh (22-9) plays No. 10 Cincinnati (13-17), with the winner taking on second-seeded and 13th-ranked Louisville (24-7) in the quarterfinals. Also, sixth-seeded and 25th-ranked Marquette (22-8) faces No. 11 Seton Hall (17-14), with that winner going against third-seeded and 14th-ranked Notre Dame (24-6) on Thursday.
Pittsburgh has been in the championship game six of the last seven seasons, winning its only title in 2003. The Panthers come in having won three of four after a three-game losing streak.

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