Pitt Opens Big East Play

With a No. 1 RPI ranking and No. 8 strength of schedule, it doesn't get any better -- or any easier, for that matter -- for the Pitt men's basketball team going into the Big East Conference portion of its schedule.

No. 3 Pitt (12-0) faces Rutgers Wednesday at 2 p.m. at the Louis Brown Athletic Center in Piscataway, N.J.

"I've said all along that it's going to be the best conference in the history of basketball, so I really can't go back on that,'' Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. "But everybody's still ranked high, and the RPIs are high for our (Big East) teams. So, it is what it is. I kind of thought it would end up happening this way when the Conference realigned, and I think it's going to continue to grow.

"(But) I really can't complain where we're at going into this game. We're No. 1 in RPI, and we're opening our first game in Conference play. We've played a tough schedule, as the numbers would indicate, and we're healthy. ... And our young guys are getting better. So, that's the best thing.''

The Panthers have not played since Dec. 21 at Florida State, but have practiced hard since last Thursday. And redshirt sophomore forward Gilbert Brown believed that Pitt was ready for its grueling 18-game Big East slate.

"We're going to step it up to another level now, and practices are a lot harder, intensity-wise,'' Brown said. "We're just trying to get ready to prove that we're one of the best teams in the Big East or the best team. We also have a big game with Georgetown, so starting it off 2-0 would be big for us.

"The Big East, it brings out another level of basketball, another level of competition, where every game counts as far as seeding and things like that in the post-season. So, this is the start of a tough stretch for us in the Conference, but I think we'll be up for the challenge.''

No team likely has a stretch like the Scarlet Knights, who lost at No. 1 North Carolina, 97-75, Sunday, and face No. 3 Pitt Wednesday. RU also faces No. 2 Connecticut Saturday night in Storrs, Conn. The Panthers visit No. 11 Georgetown Saturday for a noon tip-off.

"We talk about it a lot in the locker room and also with other players in the (Big East) that we know,'' Brown said. "It brings a whole new atmosphere into the game, and being that the Big East is the best conference that makes it even more important for us to play well every night.

"We want to prove that we're one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the Big East. ... We can't have any letdowns in the Conference, and that's what we've been preaching all week. You can't have any type of letdown, because as that Rutgers game proved last season it will result in a loss.''

Rutgers were 3-15 and among the Big East's worst teams when it came to the Pederson Events Center and pounded Pitt 77-64 last year. But that shouldn't matter too much, senior point guard Levance Fields noted.

"I didn't play in that game,'' Fields said, "so we'll be all right. ... It's one game at a time for us. Everyone can talk about the Conference, but we have to take one game at a time. And Rutgers is our first one. So, that's our focus.

"I think it's just as tough as last year, but more teams are ranked, obviously. Every year since I've been here, it's been pretty tough and before that. So, I don't think it's any different this season in the Big East.''

Fields added that the Panthers have been doing a lot of conditioning, running and scrimmaging since they returned last Thursday, and had a "real tough scrimmage (Sunday), making it seem like we had a game, since everybody else played. That's the closest thing we could do, other than playing a game.''

While Fields did not know how Pitt's long lay-off between games would affect the team, Brown believed that Rutgers would benefit from playing Sunday.

"We've worked hard in practice, but I actually think (Rutgers) might have a little bit of an advantage because they got to play a game,'' Brown said. "We had a scrimmage, a tough one, but it's not the same as playing in a real game.

"And our practices are pretty tough, but this is a chance for us to get back into it. And we're going to get the best from Rutgers, but I think every team gives us their best, especially in Conference play. They really want to beat us.''

And as a top-ranked team, Pitt likely will get the best its Big East brethren have to offer in every game this season.

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