Panthers Ready For Stretch Run

The Pitt men's basketball team took two days off to rest and recharge, but the Panthers returned to practice Tuesday afternoon to prepare for the homestretch in the Big East Conference regular-season schedule.

Pittsburgh (22-7, 11-5), ranked 17th in the Associated Press writers' poll and 18th in the coaches' poll this week (but sixth in schedule strength and ninth in the RPI), plays host to Providence Thursday at 9 p.m. and faces Rutgers Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center.

The Panthers need to win just one of the final two games to earn a top-four seed and double-bye in the Big East Tournament next week.

"It's good because it's an extra game that we won't play,'' Pitt sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs said. "Unfortunately, (getting the double-bye) didn't work out too well for us last year, but we've just got to live with it.

"For us, it all starts in practice. We've been working really hard in practice, and we want it to carry over into the games. When we do that, I think we can beat anyone. And I really believe the best is yet to come for this team.''

With wins in both games, and maybe at least one at the Big East Tournament, the Panthers can secure that possible NCAA No. 3 seed that's been discussed by fans and bracketologists lately. It also would solidify what Pitt has accomplished this season despite losing four starters and basically being picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Conference.

Some might believe that puts additional pressure on the Panthers.

"I don't know if you'd call it pressure, but it's really something we want to do,'' Gibbs said. "We want to win every single game, but we also don't want to look at it like we have to win a certain game. If we just go into it and play our game and do what Coach Dixon says ... he's done a great job preparing us, then we'll be fine.''

Even though Pitt has one home loss this year (to Georgetown), after going unbeaten at the Pete last season, senior guard Jermaine Dixon believed finishing with two victories was imperative for the Panthers.

"I told them that I didn't want to lose any games at the Pete in my career, but we took one loss this year,'' Dixon said. "It would have been great to go undefeated, but we still have a pretty good record.

"I'm just glad we were able to maintain that tradition. We've worked hard to accomplish that, but we got a lot of help from the Oakland Zoo and the local people that come to watch the games. So, I've really enjoyed this a lot.''

It also was important for the Panthers to maintain a winning tradition because past players have stressed the point.

"I talk to Levance all the time, like every day,'' Dixon said. "And you all know the type of guy he is. He's always talking trash. I've talked to DeJuan a few times, too, but they just tell us that they thought we were going to be a good team. The players that we are and the way we practiced last year, they said they knew we would be good. And they tell us to play hard all the time.

"Levance, he's always at it. Even the Notre Dame game. He was texting me as the game was going on, telling me about what I did on the court. I got the messages after the game, of course, but he was watching the game and texting me during the game about certain plays and things. Even in Russia, he keeps an eye on us. He's never out of this gym or out of this arena at Pitt.''

And with that type of support, the Panthers should be prepared for another run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

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