Pitt-Syracuse Preview

If this is a late Christmas present from the Big East Conference, the Pitt men's basketball team ought to return it.

Actually, playing Syracuse Saturday at noon at the Carrier Dome, visiting Cincinnati Monday and Connecticut Jan. 13 before finally playing at home against Louisville Jan. 16 and Georgetown Jan. 20 is about as rough a stretch of games that Pittsburgh will face this season.

But since the Big East appears to be loaded again this season, it was bound to happen sooner or later. And by facing these quality opponents early, the Panthers (11-2) should get an idea about where they stand in the Conference and where they need to go to be a contender.

"It's the Big East, and they're all good teams,'' Pitt sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs said. "This is one of the best conferences in the country. So, you are going to be playing great teams each and every day. (But) if we come prepared, I think we can beat anybody. And Coach Dixon is doing a great job preparing us.''

While that was true in the past, it might not be as easy this season with Gibbs (16.9 points) and junior guard Bradley Wanamaker (12.8) the main scoring threats so far for the Panthers. So, one might get the impression that Pitt can't trade baskets with the Orange.

Syracuse (13-0), ranked fifth nationally after being unranked in the preseason, is loaded with five players averaging in double figures in scoring. That group includes 6-foot-7 Wesley Johnson (17 points per game, nine rebounds), 6-3 point guard Brandon Triche (10.9), 6-8 Kris Joseph (10.4), 6-9 Arinze Onuaku (10.3) and 6-9 Rick Jackson (10.3). So, the Orange lineup is bigger than guard-oriented Pitt.

Those players and a solid bench have provided Syracuse with the Big East's top offense with 87.7 points per game, while Pitt is the top defense and limits opponents to just 55.9 points per game.

"This stretch is definitely big for us," senior guard Jermaine Dixon said. "This is going to tell a lot of people where we are as a team playing in the Big East Conference. We knew all of those teams were going to be good this year.

"I don't know how they set the schedule up, but I'm sure everyone has to go through a tough stretch like that. We're ready for it. This is what we came to school for, and we really can't wait to play these tough games.''

Pitt is on a four-game winning streak with seven wins in its last eight games, and this is the second highly-ranked opponent on the Panthers' schedule. Pitt dropped a 78-62 decision to No. 3 Texas Nov. 24 in Kansas City. The Longhorns are now ranked second behind Kansas.

Pitt has won four of its last five matchups against top-five teams, but is 15-47 all-time against that high ranking. In his seven years as head coach, Jamie Dixon has a 7-2 all-time record against top-five teams and is 27-24 all-time against top-25 teams.

For only the third game this year, Pitt will have its roster intact with the return of Gilbert Brown (academic suspension) and Jermaine Dixon (right foot fracture), so the Panthers are still working through some issues on offense and defense. But they're getting closer every game.

"We're not where I want us to be,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "I know that we lost a lot after last season and what the expectations are for us from a lot of different media outlets, but I never buy into that. I think we have the ability to keep things going. It's just about players stepping up.

"(Now, in) Big East play, I keep telling our guys, the freshmen need to play like sophomores, and the sophomores need to play like juniors. (And) the guys who haven't played many games, Jermaine and Gilbert, they have to pick things up, too. Jermaine's getting better, but Gilbert has a long way to go.''

Pitt has claimed 10 of the last 13 meetings against Syracuse. The Panthers have also experienced success at the Carrier Dome, as they have won three consecutive games and four of the last five matchups in New York. The last time Pitt visited the Carrier Dome, the Panthers used an 18-2 run to rally from an 11-point deficit (75-64) with 3:49 left to claim an incredible 82-77 win Feb. 24, 2008.

Brown hit a clutch 3-pointer and finished with 12 points on 4-for-7 field goals with two treys off the bench.

"We're mentally tough and mentally ready to go into a hostile environment such as the Carrier Dome and take care of business,'' Brown said. "We're ready to go in there like we usually do.''

Brown might get the job guarding Johnson, who sat out last year after transferring from Iowa State. The Orange overcame a 12-point first-half deficit to win at Seton Hall, 80-73, Tuesday to win its Big East opener. Picked sixth in the Big East preseason poll, Syracuse beat then-No. 4 North Carolina and then-No. 10 Florida, plus a 22-point rout against California to earn a high ranking.

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