Pitt-Cincinnati Preview

Jamie Dixon has had some rough road trips in his time with the Pitt men's basketball team, so the Panthers head coach -- who briefly went into panic mode Monday despite predictions for good weather -- attempted to get his team to New York City for the Big East Tournament a day early.

Budgetary concerns, since Pittsburgh (22-9, 10-8) already had plane tickets for a Tuesday morning flight that it couldn't change, and cooler heads prevailed. So, the Panthers left as previously scheduled for their game against Cincinnati (13-17, 8-10) Wednesday night at 7 at Madison Square Garden.

The Bearcats actually were in New York Monday, but their itinerary was much rougher. Their bus to the airport nearly wrecked on its way to Sunday's game at Connecticut, which was delayed because Cincinnati couldn't leave Ohio due to an early weekend blizzard, and then the Bearcats got blasted by UConn by 45 points. That matched them with Pitt in the first round, but Cincy coach Mick Cronin still was positive, even though the team never returned home.

"I hope so,'' Cronin said when asked if it would be helpful for the Bearcats to lengthen their stay in the Northeast instead of returning to their campus. "At least we're not in class, so we can practice three times (Monday).''

Cincinnati gave Pitt two tough battles during the regular season with each team winning the matchup at home, but the Bearcats have been reeling since the second game with the Panthers at the Petersen Events Center.

In fact, Cincinnati has lost five straight to close out its regular season: at Georgetown and Pitt, to Providence in overtime and DePaul at home, and then at Connecticut in the finale. The Panthers, conversely, have won three of their final four regular-season games and appear to be playing their best ball now.

"We feel like we're playing well and are the healthiest that we've been all season,'' Dixon said, continually referring to Pitt's 3-1 mark down the stretch.

But things aren't all bad for Cincinnati. The Bearcats have improved immensely this season and are expected to give Pitt a tough, physical matchup.

"Our defense improved immensely, and in Big East play we lowered our field-goal percentage defense by five whole points this year,'' Cronin said. "We went from over 47 (percent) to just over 42, and rebounding ... we went from among the worst teams in the league to finish, I believe, second in the conference.

"So, we did the things better that you need to do to win basketball games. ... You have to be able to defend and rebound and mix in some scoring to play well in this conference, and that's what the schools at the top of our conference -- the seven that should be in the NCAA Tournament -- are doing.''

In Cincinnati's 62-59 win against Pitt Jan. 19, sophomore point guard Deonta Vaughn scored 14 points, including 10-for-13 shooting from the free-throw line. Adam Hrycaniuk and Rashad Bishop added 12 and 11 points, respectively. But the reason for the win was a slight rebounding edge by the Bearcats and a defense that held Pitt to less than 42 percent shooting from the field.

In Pitt's 73-67 win Feb. 27 at the Petersen Events Center, the Panthers needed a second-half comeback to beat Cincinnati, with a highlight-reel tomahawk dunk by Sam Young keying the run. But the scoring changed for the Bearcats, as forward John Williamson tallied 27 points (12 of 18) and nine rebounds, while Vaughn had 24 points (6-13 3-pointers) and eight assists in 37 minutes each.

"Cincinnati is a dangerous team, because Vaughn can really get it going, like he did against us,'' Dixon said. "He really shot it well against us here and hit some really tough shots, some deep 3s, and they seem to go by how he shoots it. So, that's something we have to keep under control throughout the game.''

Pitt senior guard Keith Benjamin offered a way to defend Vaughn.

"You could try not to let Vaughn tough the ball, but he's going to get it,'' Benjamin said. "We've just got to stay consistent with what we're doing. He's taking a lot of shots, and he hit 6-7 threes on us the last time. Great players do things when they get the ball, but we have to force him to take tough shots -- shots that he doesn't want to take -- and get the rebound if he misses.

"We want to keep fighting for our Big East survival, and so do they. They have a lot at stake. They know that if they win this tournament they can be in the NCAA or if they play well enough, maybe they can make the NIT. So, we just want to keep it going from our aspect and just keep getting better.''

Cincinnati has had its share of good shooters over the years, but Cronin seems to have made the Bearcats a much tougher and physical team. So, Pitt freshman center DeJuan Blair knows he's in for a pounding.

"This is an aggressive team, an excellent team, and they're not going to quit,'' Blair said. "But if we play the way we played (against DePaul) for the rest of the year, we're going to be a hard team to stop. We played good on offense, and we just need to keep playing hard on defense and keep rebounding.''

Pitt will need to win three games in three straight days to make its seventh Big East championship game appearance in eight years.

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