Gunning For Greatness

A friend's cell phone rang the other day, and even though he knew the caller usually informed him about the Pitt men's basketball team the friend threw the topic out there first.

"Did you see that we're finally No. 1,'' the friend said. "After all this time, we're No. 1. In the RPI. I don't know what that means, but we're No. 1. So, that's pretty good. Right?''

That's so good that Pitt coach Jamie Dixon uses just about every opportunity to inform the media about the team's Ratings Percentage Index ranking based on the Panthers' strength of schedule, as well as their record.

Sure, Pittsburgh (12-0) is ranked third in all the major polls, but it vaulted into the top spot in the latest RPI rankings after the win at Florida State. Many preseason polls have Pitt as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament bracket and some even believe the Panthers will advance to the Final Four.

Now, Pitt has attained the No. 1 ranking for the first time in its history. No. 1 North Carolina is 10th in the RPI, and No. 2 Connecticut is seventh.

"Coach Dixon told us before the season, and he tells us before and after every game,'' Pitt senior forward Sam Young said. "We can do things where we can take him to the Promised Land. We love that.

"When you have a coach who has had so many great teams tell you that, that this is the best team, you feed off of that.''

Pitt doesn't play again until the Big East Conference opener against Rutgers (8-3) Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. at the Louis Brown Athletic Center. The Panthers also visit No. 12 Georgetown Jan. 3 before returning home.

"You know the Big East is going to be hell,'' Pitt junior guard Jermaine Dixon said. "It's going to be crazy. Even though we're getting a break. I'm sure everybody in their mind is thinking, we're going in to win the Big East.''

The Panthers left Tallahassee, Fla. after Sunday night's game for Christmas break and won't return to campus until Friday to begin practices for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers stung Pitt last year, 77-64, at the Petersen Events Center.

"People will go home for Christmas and relax and kick back,'' Young said. "At the same time, it's my job to make sure that once we get back together that we motivate the guys and keep this push going.''

There are only 10 unbeaten teams in Division I, but few have been as dominant as Pitt. The Panthers have won their 12 non-conference games by an average of 20.8 points. That's fourth-best in the nation.

Pitt also is seventh nationally in rebounding margin, eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio and 11th in field-goal defense. The Panthers' strength of schedule is seventh overall. Pitt's RPI and SOS improved greatly with the win at Florida State (11-2), which has as an RPI at No. 14.

"We could have done better, but we still won as a team,'' Young said. "I expect us to do better in the future. (And) we beat an ACC team on the road. That's a pretty good win. This game showed a lot from our players. I feel like we have all the tools. We have all the tools that it takes.''

It was Pitt's first win at an ACC school since it beat Duke in February, 1979. Pitt is 12-0 for the sixth time in the program's history and only the third time since 1931. All three of those are in the Jamie Dixon era.

"We've talked about being undefeated,'' Young said. "This is the best team we've been a part of. Coach Dixon said it's the best team that he's ever had.

"We're talking about the possibility that we can be undefeated and continue this winning streak. If we keep growing as a team anything is possible. The sky's the limit for us. I'm really trying to stay humble, but it's hard not to look to the future with the team that we have.''

The last undefeated Division I men's basketball team was Bobby Knight's 1976 Indiana squad. That means more than three decades have passed since a team went through the regular season and NCAA Tournament unbeaten. Pitt has had some pretty good teams as well, but the Panthers haven't finished strongly.

Pitt had a school-record 31 wins during the 2003-04 campaign, but lost in the Sweet 16 to NCAA-finalist Oklahoma State. A few years later, the Panthers won 29 games, but also lost in the Sweet 16 to UCLA and former coach Ben Howland. Last year's squad stunned the Big East with four straight wins to capture the Conference's tournament title, but only won one NCAA game.

There are several more chapters to write before Pitt's season can be judged, but its No. 1 RPI ranking the week of Dec. 22, 2008 is the program's best.

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