Pitt faces Marquette in Big East opener

PITTSBURGH -- Be careful what you wish for Aaron Gray, you and the University of Pittsburgh men's basketball team just might get it.

Gray, Pitt's 7-foot senior center, entered this week's Big East Tournament looking for paybacks for the Panthers' Conference losses this season. Pitt dropped its home-and-home series to Marquette, lost at home to Louisville and was beaten out for the Big East regular-season title by Georgetown after a loss in Washington, D.C.

Pitt (25-6), which had an opening-round bye as the No. 3 seed, faces Marquette in the second round tonight at 9 p.m. at Madison Square Garden in New York City. If the seeds play out, the Panthers would get No. 2 Louisville Friday night and No. 1 Georgetown Saturday in the title game.

But first, Pitt must figure out how to beat the Golden Eagles after three straight losses to them. Along with the sweep this season, Marquette also beat the Panthers in the second meeting between the two last year and knocked off St. John's in the opening round, 76-67, to get a shot at Pitt.

"Marquette's a great team, that's for sure,'' Gray said. "But we can beat them. Every team has a clean slate now, and those other games don't matter. We have a lot of guys from New York and a lot of guys who want to step up. So, it's a chance to put Pittsburgh on the map. None of us want to be part of the team that let's this thing stop rolling.

"Ever since Coach Howland got here, when this wasn't much of a program, he and Coach Dixon turned things around drastically. But we've had good players and players who have been willing to get better, and we just don't want to be that team that doesn't get it done. On the other hand, this is my last opportunity, and I want to leave my mark here as well.''

Gray's status was in question a couple weeks ago was in question after he badly sprained his left ankle and missed a game at Seton Hall Feb. 19 and was less than 100 percent for the game at Georgetown. But he has steadily improved and has not been hampered by the injury in practice. This will allow the Panthers to pound the ball inside to him against the Golden Eagles.

"We still have to work hard to Aaron his touches,'' senior forward Antonio Graves said. "We need to play inside-out to be successful, and then we have to knock our shots down when we get them. We had a lot of open looks against Marquette in the last game, but we just didn't make them.''

Graves' shooting has been as suspect as anybody's in Pitt's lineup recently, although junior Ronald Ramon and sophomore point guard Levance Fields have also been misfiring more often than not in recent games. But that doesn't bother fourth-year Pitt coach Jamie Dixon.

Graves, in particular, has not played well in recent games. But he had a solid Big East Tourney last year, so Dixon wasn't concerned.

"Antonio, I have a lot of confidence in him,'' Dixon said. "He's been working hard. He's in here every night, but the numbers are obvious. He hasn't shot it as well. He was so good throughout this year, and certainly in the Big East Tournament last year. ... He was playing well for us this year, and he has been working hard. So, that's what is important.

"As far as the team goes, we haven't shot too well lately, but our numbers are good overall. And that's what you need to look at. We're ranked high in our conference, a close second in 3-point shooting, so we've been really good. We just had a dry spell recently, so we want to keep things going to shoot the way we had been all year. And we're working hard at it.

"We've played so well all season in man-to-man (defense), but we can go to zone if we have to,'' Dixon added. "It's just that our man-to-man has been so good. We're ranked atop the Conference in field-goal and 3-point defense, and that's because we're a good man-to-man, not our zone.''

When the lights are brightest, however, like they are at the Garden, Pitt's players usually rise to the occasion. The Panthers' defense tightens, and its shooters are sharp. Pitt has reached the Big East Tournament championship game five times in the past six years with a loss to Syracuse in the title match-up last season.

"An inexperienced team might not understand what's involved in playing in the Big East Tournament, all the hype and everything that goes with it,'' Dixon said. "I think there's no other tournament like it. There's (big) crowds at every game throughout the day and every round.

"Unlike other tournaments where there are sparse crowds at the early games, and our guys have seen it. And they've been successful. Some of them are from that area, so they know about the Big East Tournament, and everybody looks forward to it in our league. There's no question.''

Graves believed that the Big East Tournament in New York City was like a second home to the Panthers in March.

"Madison Square Garden, you think about how many great players have played there and how many times we've made it to the championship game,'' Graves said. "The packed arena, the Big East championship, it's a great stage and a great arena to play in. I'm looking forward to it.

"It's an NBA court, and Michael Jordan played there. He had a great rivalry with (Patrick Ewing and) the Knicks. The thought of how many great players have been on that court and how many great games there have been there, it really gets you excited. It's a great experience.''

But that's only if Pitt beats Marquette tonight.

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