Anybody? Pittsburgh was picked to finish ninth in the Big East preseason poll, but thanks to three upset wins this year, an 8-1 finish with an 83-54 Rutgers rout to end the regular season Saturday the Panthers enter the Conference Tournament as the No. 2 seed.
Pitt has a double-bye until the quarterfinals Thursday night at 7 p.m. The Panthers could be matched against No. 7 seed Notre Dame, which plays Wednesday night against the winner between the No. 10 and 15 seeds. Those could be Seton Hall and Providence. The Irish pounded Pitt 68-53 Feb. 24.
"I feel real good about playing (anybody) at the Garden, but it would be nice to get another shot at Notre Dame since they handled us pretty well at their place,'' redshirt junior forward Gilbert Brown said. "So, that would be a great rematch at the Garden. My feeling is that we're really coming together as a team, as a unit. We're really moving the ball well offensively.
"And our assists-to-field goals ratio increases with each game. So, you can really see how much this team has come together from the beginning of the year to the last game against Rutgers. It's a real testament to how much time we put in the gym to get to this point. I don't think anybody predicted us to be No. 2, so ... we're very proud.''
Brown led the 17th-ranked Panthers with 19 points against Rutgers, as five players scored in double figures to put the game out of reach early with a 19-2 run. Pitt led by as many as 32 points twice, including 82-51 with 2:14 remaining on a layup by redshirt freshman forward Dwight Miller.
This might have been Pitt's best game this season with strong play at both ends and a deep bench. Sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs and junior guard Bradley Wanamaker tallied 13 and 12 points, respectively, while freshman center Dante Taylor added 11 with seven rebounds. Taylor had six offensive boards, the same as the entire Rutgers team, as Pitt out-rebounded the Scarlet Knights 41-24.
"I felt that my confidence was down before, but I got those dunks against Marquette,'' Taylor said. "And it started coming back after that. So, now, I'm feeling really good going into the Big East Tournament. ... I was a lot quicker than their guys inside, so I was able to box them out and get the rebounds.''
Jermaine Dixon, who celebrated Senior Night at Pitt with Chase Adams and walk-on Tim Frye, played just 12 minutes due to a right ankle sprain. But he scored 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting from the field and two free throws. He expected to be healthy for the Big East Tournament.
"I just rolled my ankle a little bit, and it's a little sore,'' Dixon said. "I could've played, but we had the game. So, I thought I'd sit it out to get ready for the Big East Tournament.''
Brown followed up a scoreless game against the Friars with an excellent two-way game. He also had six rebounds and three assists to go with 3-for-4 shooting from 3-point range and 6-for-6 from the line. Pitt made 9 of 22 from long range, while Rutgers (15-16, 5-13) made just 4 of 16 3-pointers.
"We knew about it (No. 2 seed), but that wasn't our primary focus,'' Brown said. "We just wanted to keep playing together and playing well as a team. We had a couple letdowns on defense against Providence, so we wanted to come back in this game and play better on the defensive end.''
Pitt went 17-1 at home and has won 38 of its last 39 in the Petersen Events Center. The Knights are 1-9 on the road this season. And the Panthers are 132-11 all-time at the Petersen Events Center.
"It's tough to play on the road in the Big East, and it's especially tough to play here,'' Rutgers coach Fred Hill said. "(But) I think Jamie has just done a phenomenal job, so I voted him for (Big East) Coach of the Year. I think he's done an unbelievable job.
"To lose the amount of talented young men that he lost, not that there aren't talented guys here now, but that's what you do with a good program. You've got people to step in. But to finish second after what they lost, I just think he's done a phenomenal job this year.''
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon put it all in perspective.
"It was a great senior night for us,'' Coach Dixon said. "We really came out and defended well and rebounded well, and that's what we really emphasized in the last 48 hours. ... So, it was a very good win for us, and it obviously puts us in a good spot as far as the No. 2 seed.
"That says a lot for the character of this group, to finish in second place, because I don't think they were picked to finish second by anybody. But they're a good group of kids, and I'm very proud of them. ... I don't know who we're going to play, but it's going to be a good team.''
If Pitt and West Virginia both win Thursday night, the Panthers could face their backyard rival a third time this season. Pitt lost at WVU, but won an amazing triple-overtime game nine days later at the Pete.
The two could play again in the Big East Tournament semifinals Friday at 9 p.m.
Pitt 83, Rutgers 54
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