Pitt (10-1), ranked seventh in the latest Associated Press poll after failing its recent exam at now No. 4 Wisconsin, faces No. 15 Oklahoma State (11-1) tonight at 7 in the All-College Classic at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, Okla. The Panthers also finished up their schoolwork for the semester with final exams this past week.
"We are cramming for final exams, and we're playing good teams,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "But it's a situation where we knew what we were getting into going on the road. We knew it wouldn't be easy, because if it was then everybody who was ranked would be doing it. And they're not.
"That's why our RPI went up just because we played a ranked team on the road and lost. We're up to six from seven. Arizona is one. Florida State is seven, and Wisconsin moved up to 11. We're doing something no other ranked team in the country is doing, playing two ranked teams on the road.''
And Pitt will need to play much better than it did against Wisconsin if it wants to beat Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are big, strong and athletic, so this will be another difficult matchup. The last time the two teams played Okie State beat the Panthers in a 2004 NCAA Sweet Sixteen game and eventually advanced to the Final Four before losing that season.
"It's going to be another tough game,'' senior forward Levon Kendall said. "They're a physical team and athletic, so it's the same thing for us. We need to box out, do the little things and work harder than them.
"We didn't do that at Wisconsin. (But) the one thing is that it's only December, so it's better to lose now than later on down the road. I think it's a good wake-up call for us. It gets us back on track and working hard.''
Dixon and Kendall agreed that Pitt can be successful against the Cowboys, and most teams on its schedule, by playing solid team defense. That's when the Panthers' man-to-man scheme is most effective. But that was lacking against the Badgers. They had to switch to a zone the previous game as well at Buffalo and pulled out a late win.
"I just think a couple guys started to relax, and I think we've been able to get away with it the previous few games and still be able to win,'' Kendall said. "So, maybe going (to Wisconsin) and getting our butts kicked was a good wake-up call. It gets us working even harder than before.''
Senior center Aaron Gray, a little under the weather with flu-like symptoms going into the Wisconsin game, was a little better this week and should be ready for OSU. He leads the Panthers with 16.8 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.
Junior guard Mike Cook has scored 11.8 points per game, while senior guard Antonio Graves averages 10.2 points. But Pitt needs to get more offense from its bench, and sharp-shooting junior guard Ronald Ramon should be a big part of the offense. He has to improve on his 8.6 points per game.
But Ramon believed the key to Pitt's success is based on its defense.
"After we watched some film, it was obvious to us that we have to get a lot more physical,'' Ramon said. "We have to get back to the way that we play. We have to out-hustle guys and work hard to get our rebounds, and we didn't do that (at Wisconsin). We just got away from what we do.
"We maybe got a little complacent, but we didn't want it as much as they did. I don't think we went out there and hustled and wanted to take the win. So, we're all disappointed with the way that we played, and we're going to go out and do a better job in that area in the next game.''
Oklahoma State is coming off a tough loss at Tennessee Monday night, so the Cowboys are in the same situation as Pitt. They lost for the first time in the season on the road in its last game.
"They're going to be just as hungry as we are,'' Kendall said. "If they would have won they might have been a little more comfortable, so it's just going to be a battle. And it's another tough game for us.
"Both teams are going to go out and scrap and get after it. They have some big bodies and some athletic rebounders. That's what got us beat in the last game, and we have to make sure it doesn't happen again.''
Notes: Pitt has never played in the All-College Classic, formerly a two-day tournament, but Dixon starred in the event for TCU when the Horned Frogs won it in 1986. Dixon scored 12 points and had seven assists in the win against Oklahoma State and tossed in 28 with six assists in the title win against Oklahoma. ... The Cowboys Mario Boggan and JamesOn Curry. Boggan averages 20.5 points and seven rebounds per game, while Curry scores 17.3 points. OSU also has double-figure scorers in Terrel Harris (11.2) and Obi Muonelo (11.1) and averages 80.8 points per game.