With no fewer than 11 Big East teams currently projected to make the NCAA tournament, it's safe to say the 2011 Big East tournament marks the largest gathering of at-large teams ever seen at one of these events. Look at it this way: There will be 15 games played at Madison Square Garden between Tuesday afternoon and Saturday night. And unless DePaul, South Florida, Providence, Rutgers and Seton Hall start springing upsets left and right, there's a good chance that only one of those 15 games (Seton Hall versus Rutgers, Tuesday at 2 ET) will feature two opponents not going to the NCAA tournament.
Indeed it's a mark of just how deep the conference was this season that even a team such as Connecticut, who's playing in the opening round on Tuesday, is on track for a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, according to Joe Lunardi's latest projection. This field is nothing if not stacked. You'll hear a lot of hyperbole about just how stacked, of course, but one thing is most certainly true: Given that top seeds such as Pittsburgh and Notre Dame receive byes that place them in the quarterfinals, the first one or two opponents the Panthers and Fighting Irish face in the conference tournament are likely to be much tougher than the first couple teams they see in the NCAA tournament.
Who's going to stagger through all that quality competition and emerge victorious? Here are my five favorites to hoist the trophy Saturday night at the Garden.