Battle For No. 1

It's been a record-breaking season, thus far, for the Pitt men's basketball team; a season of firsts, if you will, with the Panthers setting offensive standards and even reaching the No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history to go with their usual solid defensive performance.

And it's a good thing, too, because No. 4 Pittsburgh (23-2, 10-2 Big East) faces No. 1 Connecticut (24-1, 12-1) tonight at 7 at the Excel Center in Hartford, Conn.

ESPN will televise the game on a national basis as part of its Big Monday matchups with Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas handling the announcing duties.

Pitt is 0-13 all-time against No. 1-ranked teams.

"It should be a great game, but it's obviously tough to play up there,'' Cincy coach Mick Cronin said after Pitt hammered his team late Saturday afternoon. "(And) Pitt has a great team. (But) Jerome Dyson's injury is unfortunate for Connecticut and our conference.

"Pitt, UConn and Carolina are the best three teams I've seen. That doesn't mean the Huskies can't win the national title, but it'll be tougher without Dyson. Up there, even without Dyson, it should be a coin toss, and I'll enjoy watching it. It should be a really good game.''

Cronin wasn't finished praising Coach Jamie Dixon and the Panthers.

"This is the best Pitt team that I've seen,'' Cronin said, "and it's a culmination of a lot of hard work that Jamie's put in over the years. ... Pitt's a great team, and they played well against us. We had a really tough time stopping them. They just have more firepower this season.

"They have three players who probably are the best players in our league at their positions in Fields, Young and Blair. (Syracuse sophomore) Johnny Flynn might be a little more explosive, but for a pure point guard -- and if Levance is healthy, which he wasn't last year -- he can dominate a game.

"Sam Young has proven he can dominate a game, and DeJuan Blair has proven he can dominate a game,'' Cronin added. "And they have a lot more depth this year with more scoring, so that's why they just might win a national title this year. (And) there's just not much margin of error against them.''

Pitt sophomore center DeJuan Blair agreed with Cronin.

"This is an excellent Pitt team, and I think it's better than last year,'' Blair said. "We have some good leaders with our seniors, and ... I give them all the credit. We're just the pack, and they're leading us.

"How we play depends on how well they play, and it depends on (Fields). He's the general out there, and he leads us. He makes us go, and with the way we're playing right now we're really going along well.''

After ignoring questions about UConn all week, Fields cold finally respond.

"We feel good going into the UConn game,'' Levance Fields said. "Obviously, everybody wanted to talk about that game and overlook (Cincinnati), but I thought we did a great job preparing for this. And now, the stage is set. ... I think we're mentally ready, but it's going to be tough for us to go up there to Hartford.''

The toughest matchup for the Panthers with be Blair against 7-foot-3 center Hasheen Thabeet, who keyed UConn's big win against Seton Hall Saturday with 25 points, 20 rebounds and nine blocked shots.

"I'm a little nervous to say something, because then you'll put it in the paper,'' Blair said. "(But) Thabeet's a good player, and he had a good game (against Seton Hall). ... I don't know what else to say, but I'm ready. I'm ready.

"I'm going to try to have Levance stand on Gil's shoulders to help me get ready, but ... that might not be enough. But we've worked hard for this, and we're ready to go. We'll take a look at them (Sunday) and then go up there.''

Fields addressed the Dyson injury.

"He's their second-leading scorer, so they're losing about 13-14 points,'' Fields said. "And he's a very good on-board defender. He probably would have been guarding me, so they're losing a lot with his athleticism.

"But they still have a lot of great weapons there, guys who can fill the void. So, injuries are part of the game. You all know that we went through it last year, so we can't worry about what they're doing. We've just got to get it done.''

Connecticut is led by senior forward Jeff Adrien with 14 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, while Thabeet is at 13.5 points and 10.8 rebounds each contest. Senior guard A.J. Price scores 12.1 points per game. Dyson averaged 13.2 points per contest before his injury.

Dixon is impressed with the Huskies and especially Thabeet.

"The biggest thing about Thabeet is how much he's gotten better the past couple years,'' Dixon said. "He's made a lot of improvement. ... Two years later, with him as a starter, they're the No. 1 team. So, he's made tremendous improvement (and) development. He's 7-3, and he's gotten better every day.

"(But) we're No. 1 in RPI, so you can't get much higher than that. I tend to look at that as a pretty good indicator more than anything else, but we've got to go beat a good team on the road. That's what it is. We've got to defend better and continue to execute the way we have on offense.

"I've always said that I look at the RPI a lot more than I look at the polls,'' Dixon added. "The RPI at least represents something tangible and results rather than opinions and other things factored in. So, I look at that, but we've got to make some plays and defend. And we'll be ready to go.''

Pitt and Connecticut meet for the 55th time in series history. Pitt is 24-30 all-time against Connecticut with a 5-5 record over the last 10 games. However, the Panthers are 1-6 against UConn on the road since the 1998 season.

This matchup pairs the Big East's two winningest programs. Both have spent time as the nation's No. 1 team this season. Since 2001-02, Pitt has compiled the Big East's best winning percentage (.800, 212-53), while Connecticut ranks second (.773, 201-59). Over that same period, UConn has the Big East's best winning percentage (.732, 93-34), while Pitt is a close second (.722, 91-35).

During that period, Pitt also has made seven NCAA Tournament appearances, while UConn has made six. Both rank among the nation's top-six programs with four NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearances in the last seven years. The two have also met in three of the last seven Big East Tourney championships. The two teams meet again in Pittsburgh March 7, the final regular-season game.

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