For a second time in less than a week, Pitt will face the same Big East opponent. Last Wednesday, Pitt defeated St. John's 89-69 in the regular season home game. Six days later, the two teams meet again in the opening round of the Big East Tournament.
Despite the big win for Pitt, both teams feel the need to prove something. For St. John's, the 20-point loss is no doubt lingering in their heads. They were also without the services of freshman Moe Harkless. Harkless averaged over 15 points a game this season, and was the only freshman to earn at least an honorable mention on the all-conference team.
If Harkless is ready to go or not, the Red Storm may also benefit from a little home court advantage, playing in New York City.
"I know they're going to be a lot hungrier," Pitt guard Travon Woodall said. "They're playing at home, they're playing at the Garden. They're going to come out a lot hungrier. We have to defend a lot better this time."
The Pitt side of it, is the Panthers feel they can play better than they did on Wednesday night. Despite shooting 63.3% for the game, the Panthers turned the ball over 16 times. Jamie Dixon also felt his team's defense was off at times, but also felt that some St. John's players have that ability to make the tough shot.
"It's all about improving and doing what we can to defend better, run our offense better and rebound better, and put it all together as we move forward," Dixon said. "We still could have done things better defensively, could have done things better offensively. We're striving to do that."
Not very many people are going to give Pitt a fighting chance in this tournament, entering as the No. 13 seed with a record of 16-16. Part of that can be motivation for the players. The other motivating factor is that no one on Pitt's roster has ever won a Big East Tournament game. That's hard to believe from a team that advanced to the Tournament championship game six times in seven years, in a span from 2002-2008. Since that victory in the 2008 Big East Tournament over Georgetown, Pitt has gone one-and-done in each of the last three tournaments.
"For me and Ashton, this game will be very important for us; just getting that first win," senior Nasir Robinson said. "Since we've been here, we haven't had a Big East win. We've always lost in the first round. It's going to be big for us."
"We have a lot of guys that just want to leave everything on the floor," Woodall added. "We don't have a Big East (Tournament) win. We want to get our first win, and leave it all out on the floor."
One other obstacle Pitt is going to have to overcome, is the fact of playing five games in five days. Not that they can't do it. It's a matter of keeping everyone healthy for five days in a row. Dixon added that players like Woodall and Robinson haven't been healthy enough to practice and play in games in five consecutive days this season. He looks past whether or not they can do it this week, knowing his team has to play one game at a time.
"We'll see when it comes," Dixon added. "They haven't practiced for five days in a row. They haven't been on the floor five days in a row. We'll see where it goes. Tuesday is our focus, and St. John's is our focus. That's what we need to do."
The players are feeling confident that they'll be able to overcome any injuries like the ones they've been dealing with this season. Specifically, Robinson with his knee that has to get repeatedly drained.
"I can do that," Robinson said. "I'm just looking to keep playing. My knee feels better; moving better in practice. I feel my strength is back. I'm ready to go."
"You just have to toughen up," Woodall adds. "It's going to show your toughness. (Nas) is a tough guy. I like to look at myself as a tough guy too. We have to just go out there and play, and not worry about anything, making sure we take care of our bodies after the game; ice up and rest up. We just have to be ready to go every day, no excuses."
One thing that has Dixon and his players encouraged is the way the team has played over its last three games. In each of the last three games, the Panthers outrebounded Louisville, St. John's and UConn by an average of +10. To go along with that rebounding, Dixon feels his defense is progressing.
"We're practicing hard, we're rebounding hard," Dixon added. "The numbers indicate that. We're battling. We came back from a slow start, and we played well in the second half of last game. The effort, and battle is there. We need to execute and carry out our assignments, carry out our responsibilities consistently."
Another pleasant surprise has been the play of J.J. Moore over the last five games. Moore was averaging a shade under eight points a game through his first 11 games of the season. He then entered a 14-game stretch where he averaged just 3.8 points a game and was 3-of-31 (9.7%) from three-point range. Over these final five games, Moore has been Pitt's most consistent player. He's reached double figures in each of the last five games, averaging 15.4 points and 4.4 rebounds a game. He's also hit on 8-of-14 (57.1%) from three-point range.
"Guys get better in our program," Dixon said of Moore's recent improvement. "He's a sophomore. He's been healthy, he's been playing out there every day. In our history, if guys are healthy and play hard every day, and they come out and battle, there will be some setbacks, but he's battled through them. He's stayed healthy, but he's a guy who has stayed as healthy as anyone in practice. He doesn't have any injuries. He's just feeling more and more comfortable.
"It seemed to be that he was doing a better job of focusing, playing hard, play aggressive, is physical. I always felt that he would get better. That's what he's done. He's improved in that area; he's rebounding well. It's just part of defense. He was shooting the ball very well early in the year, then he went through a stretch, and now he's shooting it better. There was a little lull, but now he's getting it done."
Dixon feels it's just another part of the program—a younger player hitting his stride at the right time. In addition to Moore, he seems pretty confidence in some of the other freshmen and sophomores he has contributing to the lineup.
"We're getting some good production out of some younger guys," Dixon added. "That's what we wanted to see. We've seen that in the past. Malcolm (Gilbert), John (Johnson) has played good, Cameron (Wright) has played a little bit better. Lamar (Patterson) has gotten better. Freshmen, sophomores, all those guys."
Dixon also said that Johnson—who was not able to go in the UConn game on Saturday—is healthy and ready to go tomorrow if needed. Johnson was limited heading into the game, and could only play three minutes on Saturday.