Pitt Opens Big East Play

Ready or not, it's time to bring on the big, bad Big East.

The Pitt men's basketball team looks forward to moving into the Conference portion of its schedule and begins Sunday at noon at Villanova's DuPont Pavilion in Philadelphia.

The 13th-ranked Panthers (12-1) open Big East play with consecutive road games for the first time since the 1995-96 season. After visiting the No. 16 Wildcats (10-2), who lost at DePaul in their Conference opener, Pittsburgh also faces South Florida Wednesday night in Tampa.

The Panthers will face all Big East teams the rest of the way, as the schedule has expanded to 18 games this season.

"The level of competition is going to get a lot tougher, but we've been preparing for this,'' senior guard Keith Benjamin said. "And we can play basketball. That's what we feel we can do, and that's what we're going to do.''

Senior Ronald Ramon, who moved to point guard for the last game against Lafayette after junior Levance Fields was injured, joins Benjamin in Pitt's starting backcourt for the second straight game. They face a quick Nova duo in sophomore Scottie Reynolds, a unanimous All-Big East preseason selection, and freshman Corey Fisher, a five-star recruit from New York.

"The names change, but their style of play and what they do are pretty similar,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We expect to face the same type of Villanova team that we've played the past few years.''

The Wildcats fired up 26 shots from 3-point range against DePaul, but made just six. The shot selection isn't anything new for Villanova, but the shooting percentage is somewhat worse. Reynolds, the 2007 Big East Rookie of the Year, averages 16.5 points per game and leads the team in assists and steals. Fisher scored a game-high 23 points against DePaul.

So, it's going to be a tough task for the Panthers at Villanova, because of the opponent and the arena, since they haven't won there in nearly 13 years. Pitt is 0-5 at Nova's 6,500-seat, on-campus arena dating to January, 1995. Pitt lost at the DuPont Pavilion, 80-72, in February, 2005, Benjamin's sophomore year.

"It was very crowded, very tough and very noisy,'' Benjamin said. "A very small gym. Kind of like (Fitzgerald) Field House. It's going be a great test to open the Big East schedule.''

Benjamin has already passed his initial test after his career-high performance against Lafayette. He set personal marks in points (20), field goals (seven), assists (five) and minutes played (32).

"I felt pretty good, but I got a little tired,'' Benjamin said. "It still felt good to be out there for that amount of minutes, and it felt good to have that much production. So, I'll keep working on my conditioning and, hopefully, I'll be able to keep the production up as well. I just have to keep working hard.''

Ramon was spectacular as well with solid shooting and a tremendous floor presence that included 11 assists.

"We know our guys can shoot, so I just wanted to give them a chance with some open shots,'' Ramon said. "That's why I wanted to move the ball around and try to get it to the open guy. That's what we need to do in our half-court offense, and it's going to be my job for a while.''

Ramon's play opened things up for super subs like junior forward Tyrell Biggs to have a big game as well with 19 points.

"I think there's going to be a lot more offensive opportunities for everybody,'' Biggs said. "As long as we keep moving the ball around on offense, more guys will get chances, and we need more guys to step up.

"So, I believe we'll see a lot more from a lot of different guys. And we needed a game like this, because we have the Big East (schedule) coming up, and we have to be on top of our game all the time or we'll get beat.''

And with Conference play set to begin, the competition will be as tough as ever.

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