Pitt hoops-nonconference schedule ends

The tenth ranked Pitt Panther basketball team is preparing for the Florida A&M Rattlers Saturday night at the Peterson Events Center. Head Coach Jamie Dixon and his staff would like to add a twelfth win prior to diving into their Big East Conference schedule. PantherDigest.com Senior Writer Dale Grdnic previews the game.

PITTSBURGH -- The University of Pittsburgh men's basketball team opens Big East play Thursday at Syracuse, but Coach Jamie Dixon doesn't want the Panthers to get snake-bit in their final conference game.

No. 10 Pitt (11-2) plays host to the Florida A&M Rattlers (6-6) Saturday at 8 at the Petersen Events Center.

"I think when you overlook any team, that's when they can jump up and beat you or even just get you in a situation where it's a close game,'' Pitt 7-foot center Aaron Gray said. "They've played tough against some good teams, so we know we need to come ready to play.

"Coach Dixon does a great job of keeping us focused. Nobody here is even talking about Syracuse, yet.''

While Dixon has touted Pitt's nonconference schedule, and it certainly has been upgraded, it would appear that the Rattlers would need a supreme performance to pull an upset. Dixon noted that Florida A&M played close games with Florida and Illinois, but it actually lost to the Gators by 15 and the Fighting Illini by 21. The Rattlers also were blown out by Maryland, Bradley, Illinois-Chicago and Miami (Ohio) this season.

"Florida A&M is a very good opponent for us,'' Dixon said. "It's another team that was predicted to be at the top of their league. (We) know what to expect, so we know we need to play well in order to win. And so far, we've done a good job of looking at the next game and none down the road.''

If the Panthers don't look past the Rattlers, they certainly should be able to look over the top of them. Florida A&M's tallest player is 6-8 center Rome Sanders, while the rest of its frontcourt includes 6-5 forwards Brian Greene and Darius Glover. So, Pitt is much taller overall.

And the Rattlers really don't have any significant wins with three against non-Division I-A opponents. They also have an RPI rating of 205 and just slipped past one-win North Florida by one point in their most recent game. But Pitt forward Sam Young said that doesn't matter.

"We've watched them on tape,'' Young said. "They have some quick guards that can shoot, and they're an athletic team. Their big men are capable of scoring as well, so we can't take anything for granted.

"They'll put our defense to the test. That's for sure. We're going to have to work hard to win this game. You can't go to sleep against anyone and expect to win the game, and we know that.''

While Pitt's defense might expect to be tested, the Rattlers certainly will be pushed on defense as well. The Panthers have been scoring more than usual this season and shooting better than ever at 51 percent from the field. That's second in the Big East and 13th in the nation.

Pitt also is on pace to break the team mark of 50.9 percent that was set during the 1986-87 season. Only two Panthers squads have shot better than 50 percent in a season, so this year's performance has been rare. The best in the Dixon-Howland regime is 50.6 in 2002-03, but Pitt shot 45.6 last year and has hit better than 48 percent just once the past 16 seasons.

"But I went into the year thinking that we would be a better shooting team, and I don't think there's any question about that,'' Dixon said.

Gray is the most efficient so far at 62.2 percent and is ranked among the top 30 in the nation. Only two Panthers in the nine-player rotation, point guard Levance Fields and senior forward Levon Kendall, are missing more shots than they're making. But Fields has been shooting better lately.

"I think it's because we're an unselfish team,'' Gray said. "We pass up the long shot to make another pass to get someone else a better shot. We have a lot of good players, too, so that really helps. We have a very good team, and shooting is just one part of it.''

One thing is certain, Pitt should be well-rested for tonight's game and Big East play after a week off between games. Gray and Young have had the most benefit from the time off, especially because Young has had tendon soreness in his knees.

"I feel better than I have since preseason practice started, and it's something that will continue to get better,'' Young said.

The Panthers are hope that the same can be said about them.

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