It all started during Pitt's first NCAA Tournament run of the Howland-Dixon era. Pitt advanced to the championship round that year for the first time in school history, losing a 75-65 game to the Huskies in the championship game.
Both teams would meet in the Big East Tournament's championship round three years in a row. Following that double-overtime loss in 2002, the Panthers got revenge with its first-ever Big East Tournament championship, a 74-65 win over UConn. The Huskies answered in 2004 with a 61-58 win that went down to the wire.
What's odd about this year's matchup, is that after a three-year stretch of memorable wins in the championship game for each school, the two teams haven't met since that 2004 final—Jamie Dixon's first year. Since then, both programs have hit their own rut. Prior to this year's tournament, the Huskies had not won a game since the 2005 tournament. The same is said for Pitt, who enters this year's Big East Tournament not having won a game since 2008, when they captured the tournament championship for a second year in a row.
That 2008 was a bit of an improbable run, as Pitt had to defeat four teams who had wins over them in the regular season—Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and Georgetown in the final. Interestingly, Pitt got revenge on Georgetown in the championship game in 2008, after losing to the Hoyas in the 2007 championship game. Brad Wanamaker, Gary McGhee and Gilbert Brown all contributed to that team as freshmen.
"It was great for us," Wanamaker said of making that run. "Our team, (three) years ago, we ran through injuries; guys coming back, and getting back into the flow of our rotation. At times, we had tough times playing against the teams we had to play again. We see them in the Garden when we were back in the flow of things, and we got things going."
It's different this time around. Pitt has had some injuries along the way, but they have not had to lose key starters for significant stretches of time in conference play, as the 2007-08 team did.
"This year, we're pretty healthy," Wanamaker added. "For us to go against a team that came here, beat us, a team we lost to on the road, would be great."
The interesting thing is, is from 2002 to 2008—seven seasons—Pitt played in the tournament championship game six times, coming away with two wins; UConn in 2003 and Georgetown in 2008. Since then, Pitt has been bounced from their first game two years in a row. Both times were in the quarterfinal round, after the Panthers had earned the double-bye. Head coach Jamie Dixon credits it to facing a very good team in that quarterfinal round.
"It's just what it is, no matter how you set it up, the quarterfinals are going to have eight really good teams playing," Dixon said. "It's just how it's going to be. There's no other way to look at it."
Though his team has lost in both of its first two tries in earning the double-bye as one of the top-four teams in the Big East, that doesn't mean Dixon feels it's an unfair system.
"The difference is that this conference has just gotten better and better," Dixon said. "Since we went to the double-bye, it's continued, since we all came together, I think it's taken another step. Teams have elevated their status, their play, their talent. That's what we have now; ten NCAA Tournament teams or 11. We've made each other stronger. That's what it's really all about.
Even a team like UConn—a team that lost to Pitt by 15 in the conference-opener, and a team that lost seven of its final 11 games in the regular season—elevates its play come tournament time.
UConn, now at 23-9, is a top-25 team in both polls, in addition to RPI, which goes along with Dixon's theory. In addition to that, this is a UConn team that is much more experienced than the one Pitt beat by 15 in the conference-opener on December 27. The Huskies had six freshmen seeing the floor in their first Big East game. Aside from Kemba Walker, who still ended up leading the team in scoring with 23.4 points a game, Jeremy Lamb is right behind him with 10 points a game.
UConn appears to be on a roll with impressive wins over DePaul and Georgetown to start this year's Big East Tournament. The pressure is now on Pitt to end its drought, and get its first win in Madison Square Garden since the 2008 tournament. Regardless, they are not using the double-bye as an excuse.
"I guess having so much time off, sometimes teams got to us the last two years," guard Ashton Gibbs said. "We can't let it get to us this year. We have a lot of experienced players. A lot of players have been in this situation."