Pitt-Villanova Preview

It doesn't matter that only a few current Panthers played last year in the NCAA Tournament loss to Villanova that propelled the Wildcats into the Final Four.

Pittsburgh has anticipated the rematch ever since, and the No. 19 Panthers (20-6, 9-4) finally get it Sunday at noon at the Petersen Events Center. Third-ranked Villanova enters the game at 22-3 overall and 11-2 in the Big East.

"Jermaine, especially, he's been waiting for this game for a long time,'' Pitt junior guard Bradley Wanamaker said. "(And) we're going to feed off that (Sunday). We know he's going to come out and play his hardest, so we're going to play our hardest.''

Jermaine Dixon certainly doesn't like reminiscing about that fateful day, Pitt's first venture into the NCAA Elite Eight in 35 years and initial trip there under the 64-team format. The Panthers' only senior, Dixon was responsible for guarding Nova guard Scottie Reynolds, who blew past him and basically went coast-to-coast for a game-winning layup with time running out.

"It was my fault,'' Dixon said. "Scottie Reynolds just broke on me. I was in front of him, and he broke on me and got a catch, and he made the layup. ... That was my fault.

"I should have let him the catch the ball closer to (Pitt's basket), instead of getting in front of him and giving him an easy lane to their basket. I shouldn't have denied him the ball.''

There's no Final Four trip on the line this time, but the game is still critical as far as the Big East standings are concerned with five regular-season games remaining. Villanova leads the Conference, while Pitt is third. Both appear to be assured of a top-four finish and double-bye in the Big East Tournament.

But the Panthers are looking for more after entering a season where they were supposed to be rebuilding and entrenched in the mid-to-lower portion in the Conference standings. Now, Pitt wants to win the Big East title. It's a long shot, to be sure, but not out of the question.

The Panthers trail the Wildcats and Syracuse (25-2, 12-2), which they already have beaten, and they are tied for the No. 3 spot with West Virginia at 9-4.

"That's something we talk about all the time,'' Wanamaker said. "We're focusing on winning out right now. We take it one game at a time, but we look at the big picture and maybe we can win the regular-season championship.''

For the 15th time in Petersen Events Center history, both teams are nationally ranked. However, Pitt is 6-0 against top-five teams at the Pete and is 11-4 overall against the top 25.

The six wins against top-5 opponents include beating No. 5 Notre Dame on Jan. 6, 2003; No. 5 Connecticut on Feb. 15, 2004; No. 4 Syracuse on Jan. 29, 2005; No. 5 Georgetown on Jan. 14, 2008; No. 1 Connecticut on March 7, 2009 and No. 5 West Virginia on Feb. 12, 2010.

Not that any of those previous wins were easy, but beating Villanova will be quite a feat for the Panthers. The Wildcats are led by Reynolds (18.9 points per game and 40.2-percent shooting from 3-point range), Corey Fisher (14.2 points, 4.12 assists), Antonio Pena (11 points, 7.5 rebounds), Corey Stokes (8.9, 4.3) and Reggie Redding (8.3, 5.1). Villanova's offense ranks first in the Big East with 85 points per game.

"Myself, personally, I thought either Villanova or Syracuse would run away with it when we had those losses,'' Jermaine Dixon said. "But this is the Big East. They lost to some of the lower-ranked teams. That definitely helped us. I wish Georgetown could have beat Syracuse (Thursday) night.

"I'm sure Syracuse will have more tough games. We're going to do what we have to do, and that's try to win out. Hopefully, we can get it. It's probably a long shot, but we're going to do our part. And hopefully it works out for us.''

With every win, the Panthers certainly take a step closer to securing one of the four double-byes. Teams that finish ninth through 16th must play on the first day of the tournament and teams seeded fifth through eight must play on the second day. The top four teams don't play until Day 3.

"That would be real big because you get to rest for two days, and you get to see who you're going to play,'' Wanamaker said. "You can get focused and you get rest. ... But we're focusing on Villanova right now, and we want to beat them because of what happened last year. This is a big game for us.''

Sure, Pitt's nothing like the team that battled Villanova to the final buzzer in an NCAA Elite Eight game last year, but the Panthers also aren't the same team that began this season. They're much better. Just ask Pitt coach Jamie Dixon.

"We've improved over the last couple of weeks,'' Coach Dixon said. "That's been our goal. Anyone who has seen this team knows this team has been on a mission to show improvement from the beginning of the year.

"Even the most negative of people could say this team has improved dramatically. That's pretty clear, and that should be recognized because they have tried and put effort into it.''

And if Pitt can beat Villanova, that certainly won't go unnoticed.

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