The Sports Xchange Looks At Pitt

The Sports Xchange takes a look at the Pitt men's basketball team after huge Big East road wins against Syracuse and Cincinnati and a look ahead to Connecticut.

GETTING INSIDE The Big East's top two teams of the last decade will square off Sunday when Pittsburgh travels to Hartford to take on Connecticut.

Since 2001, the Panthers and the Huskies own the top two winning percentages overall and in conference games. Pitt is No. 1 in both.

The Panthers are 233-58 overall, 99-36 in Big East play.

The Huskies are 217-66 overall, 97-37 in league play.

The series between the two schools is just as close. Pitt owns a slight edge, going 7-6 against the Huskies since 2001, including winning both meetings last season.

Pitt pulled off a rare double last season when it beat Connecticut twice when it was ranked No. 1.

The Panthers went to the XL Center in Hartford and won 76-68 in the game that cemented DeJuan Blair as an All-American. Blair had 22 points and 23 rebounds and dominated Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet. In addition to the outstanding numbers, Blair's physical play was a big hit in that game. He threw Thabeet to the ground after the two were entangled under the basket.

In the rematch at Pitt on the final day of the regular season, Pitt won again, 70-60, behind 31 points from Sam Young.

Blair and Young are in the NBA now, but it doesn't seem to matter which players are wearing the uniforms. The games between these teams always are entertaining and meaningful.

PITT 74, CINCINNATI 71: The Panthers received 19 points from Ashton Gibbs and 17 from Gilbert Brown to improve to 3-0 in Big East play. The Panthers worked their motion offense and got plenty of easy shots against the Cincinnati defense. Pitt shot 49 percent and converted 20 of 27 free throws.

The Panthers led 38-32 at halftime and did not allow Cincinnati to take the lead in the second half. The Bearcats tied the score on two occasions, but the Panthers kept converting their free throws in the final minutes to win a second consecutive road game.

NOTES, QUOTES --Though it's obviously still early, Pitt made an early statement in the first week of conference play. It opened by winning at DePaul and stunned previously undefeated and fifth-ranked Syracuse by 10 on Saturday.

This is definitely a different team from the one that nearly made the Final Four a year ago, and without DeJuan Blair and Sam Young it's much less imposing inside. Though freshman Dante Taylor has a great future and had 10 points against the Orange, he hasn't had the dominant impact that some hoped for given his McDonald's All-American status.

What this year's squad can do is shoot over a zone defense, as it did against Syracuse. Ashton Gibbs is as good a shooter as the program has had. He's capable of knocking down threes or getting automatic points at the line. Brad Wanamaker is having a breakout junior season, and Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown are getting back into a groove after their extended absences in the first semester.

The Panthers made a mockery of the Syracuse zone, scoring a season-high 82 points. With that kind of effort, it's doubtful coach Jamie Dixon's crew will be sneaking up on anyone else in Big East play this season.

--The victory over No. 5 Syracuse shouldn't have been a surprise to Pitt fans. The Panthers are 8-2 against top-five teams under coach Jamie Dixon, though one of those losses came to Texas earlier this year.

--Pittsburgh's 82 points against Syracuse marked the most the Panthers have scored all season. Entering the game, the Panthers had scored more than 70 points just five times this season, and were 15th among the 16 Big East teams in scoring.

ON THE SPOT: Pitt has to start getting better play from starting C Gary McGhee, who has gone eight games without scoring in double figures. The Panthers have relied heavily on their guards for scoring this season, and McGhee has to be able to contribute more from the low post. McGhee, who is replacing All-American DeJuan Blair, has not shown an ability to grab offensive rebounds, something that has been a staple of the center position at Pitt for the last six years with Blair, Aaron Gray and Chris Taft. McGhee has just six offensive rebounds in the last four games.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Pitt's a tremendous defensive team, they always have been. And you have to match the physical nature of how they're playing. We did not do that." -- Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told the Syracuse Post-Standard, after the Panthers knocked the Orange from the ranks of the unbeaten on Saturday.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL SEASON RECAP: The Panthers made a statement in the opening week of the Big East schedule, knocking off DePaul and No. 5 Syracuse. The win over the Orange marked the first marquee victory of the season for the Panthers, who didn't do much to draw notice in their nonconference slate.

PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Nasir Robinson, C Gary McGhee, G Bradley Wanamaker, G Ashton Gibbs, G Jermaine Dixon. Key Subs -- G Travon Woodall, G Chase Adams, G-F Gilbert Brown, F Dante Taylor.

GAME REVIEW: Pittsburgh 74, Ohio 49 Pittsburgh 65, DePaul 52 Pittsburgh 82, Syracuse 72 Pittsburgh 74, Cincinnati 71

GAME PREVIEW: at Connecticut, Wednesday, Jan. 13 vs. Louisville, Saturday, Jan. 16 vs. Georgetown, Wednesday, Jan. 20 at Seton Hall, Sunday, Jan. 24

IN FOCUS: The Connecticut game will feature a pair of programs that appear to be reloading, rather than retooling, since last year's battles for supremacy on both the Big East and the national scene. It will be a good indication of which team is further along in the process with two months to go before Selection Sunday.

ROSTER REPORT: --G Ashton Gibbs missed a free throw against Cincinnati, snapping his school-record streak of 46. Before missing a free throw with 2.9 seconds remaining, Gibbs had not missed since the Nov. 24 game against Texas. He had gone eight games without missing from the line. Gibbs made 10-of-11 against the Bearcats.

--F Gilbert Brown scored a season-high 17 points against Cincinnati and made 2-of-3 attempts from 3-point range. Since returning from an academic suspension that forced him to miss the first 11 games of the season, the junior has made four of his six attempts from behind the arc.

--G Brad Wanamaker continues to struggle with his shooting stroke. In three Big East games, the junior is 6-for-24 from the field. Wanamaker had been one of Pitt's most consistent scorers in non-conference play, reaching double figures nine times in 12 games. He has reached double figures just once in three Big East games.

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