Dixon: Pitt-UConn Never Disappoints

When Jamie Dixon arrived at Pitt with Ben Howland some 12 years ago, the Connecticut men's basketball program was one that current Panthers head coach wanted to emulate.

While Pittsburgh hasn't reached the Huskies' level just yet -- as the Panthers' Elite Eight appearance last year was their best, while Connecticut won NCAA titles in 1999 and 2004 -- Pitt certainly has had an upper hand in recent years, but nearly every game has been spectacular.

The 57th game in the series has No. 16 Pitt (13-2, 3-0) facing No. 15 UConn (11-4, 2-2) in a Big East Conference clash tonight at 7 at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. The Huskies lead the series 30-26, but the Panthers are 7-5 since 2003 with two victories last season when UConn was No. 1.

"It's hard now, because we don't play everybody twice in our Conference, but we've probably played UConn as much as we possibly could,'' Dixon said. "Whether it's in the Big East Tournament or regular-season games. And every game has been great. No game has disappointed.

"Every game has had a huge amount of hype, and I don't think we've ever come away with that game not living up to it. So, that's very rare, but we have great respect for them. And I believe they have great respect for us. I think that comes from players and staff on both sides.

"So, I think we're the best two programs in the Big East in record the past eight years,'' Dixon added, "and when you throw all those things in you can see why. (The games are) all on national-TV, and I don't think you can pick a best game. I tend to pick the ones that we've won, but I guess I'm a little biased.''

UConn was ranked No. 1 both times Pitt defeated the Huskies last year. On Feb. 16, 2009, the No. 4 Panthers won 76-69, as DeJuan Blair tallied 22 points and 23 rebounds and a takedown against 7-foot-3 UConn center Hasheem Thabeet. While grabbing a rebound that Thabeet contested, Blair snagged the ball and his opponent's arm and flipped Thabeet over his shoulder. It was Pitt's first win in 14 games against a No. 1 team.

On March 7, 2009, No. 3 Pitt won 70-60. Sam Young stole the show in the Blair-Thabeet rematch with a career-high 31 points and 10 rebounds on Senior Day at the Petersen Events Center with a record 12,908 in attendance. Pitt fans probably remembered these games like they were played yesterday, and the Huskies probably want to erase them emphatically tonight.

"We got them two times last year, so they're looking for revenge this year,'' Pitt junior guard Bradley Wanamaker said. "And they're going to get after us.''

The Panthers' redshirt junior forward Gilbert Brown agreed and noted that playing in Hartford makes the task all that more difficult.

"It's a whole different atmosphere,'' Brown said. "It'll be a lot like Syracuse was with the fans screaming. It'll be very loud, deafening, so we won't be able to hear anything. But I think it'll be an intense game. (And) I know the returning players (for UConn) are looking for some satisfaction against us.

"They want to beat us bad after we beat them twice when they were No. 1 last year. But, hopefully, we'll keep it up and come away with a victory against them once again this year. It's going to be a tough one, though.''

UConn's best asset this season appears to be its ability to score relentlessly in transition, and the Huskies' speed and athleticism with be difficult -- but not impossible -- for Pitt to overcome.

"I told them that Syracuse was the best transition team we'll play all year long, but I retracted that statement,'' Dixon said. "I don't like to do that too often, but after watching Connecticut I think they'll be the best transition team that we've played. ... Every day we do a transition defense drill, so that's in our minds every practice and every day and going into every game.

"When you play a team like this, you point out little things. We worked on (out of bounds) plays where we got shots on, but our in-bounds guy didn't get back. So, we've emphasized that, (and) it's probably why we're usually good at it. It's an everyday thing, and it's probably our most-important thing. It's probably a drill that we do every day no matter what, and it's the only drill like that.''

That drill will come in handy when dealing with Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson, UConn's top scorers with about 20 and 18 points per game, respectively. Kemba Walker averages about 13 points per contest.

Dixon noted that Dyson probably is the fastest UConn player from end to end, and team defense will be needed to slow him down. The same with Robinson.

"We just have to make him take tough shots and not make it easy for him early on,'' Wanamaker said. "That's what we can do against him. Overall, we just have to come out with the same mentality and intensity on defense and take good shots on offense. UConn probably is the best transition team that we'll play this year. Syracuse was good, but UConn is better at it.

"So, anytime we can force them to get in a half-court offense it will be an advantage to us. That means we have to get back as quickly as possible so they won't get opportunities where they get an advantage on the breaks. Just watching film on them, they're a pretty good team, getting the ball out and executing off of other team's mistakes.''

And with the way this series has gone in recent years, just one mistake could be the difference.

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