GETTING INSIDE The Panthers stay in New York City for the Big East tournament was abbreviated relative to the team's expectations, but Pittsburgh got some of its confidence back when it earned the No. 3 seed in the West Region.
The Panthers are fully restored following Friday's 89-66 win over Summit League champion Oakland.
"My thing is to speak to the strengths and talents of Oakland and make sure our guys know how good they are,'' Coach Jamie Dixon said. "(And), once we were able to get going, we could find some guys for open shots, and things started rolling.''
Based on the preseason polls, the Panthers were a long shot to even make the NCAA Tournament. But they gained steam with wins over the likes of Syracuse and Villanova, teams that have worn the No. 1 in the nation label this season. Pitt also experienced a few lows -- like two losses to Notre Dame in the final 12 days of the regular season -- that might've created doubt in the team's mind about where it stood in the national pecking order.
If Pitt is going to keep this surprising season a success, they'll have to avoid allowing Xavier to repeat the Notre Dame blueprint. Like the Irish, the Musketeers are led by their guards, will challenge Pitt by attacking the rim but also thrive when getting clean looks in the half-court set. What the Fighting Irish did particularly well was deny leading scorer Ashton Gibbs the basketball. The sophomore was limited to four points -- on just four shots -- in the last meeting with the Irish and then scored just seven points (five at the free-throw line) against Oakland in the first round of the NCAAs.
Xavier isn't the team it was last season when these teams met in the Sweet Sixteen. The Musketeers have a new coach and their three top scorers from the 2008-09 team are gone.
But there's a big difference between the Panthers team that went to the Elite Eight and came agonizingly close to the Final Four a year ago and the current edition, too. The 2008-09 squad had guys like Sam Young and DeJuan Blair inside, plus Levance Fields on the perimeter, making them very hard to stifle.
Of course, it was the fact that everyone focused on the players who were gone that so little was expected from the team this season in the first place. The Panthers won't be a trendy pick to match last year's Elite Eight run, but with a defense that ranked No. 1 in the Big East in points allowed and a bench that's gotten better as the season has gone on, this team could continue to prove the doubters wrong.
PITTSBURGH 89, OAKLAND 66: Six players scored at least 10 points for the Panthers, and one of them wasn't top scorer Ashton Gibbs. Minus Gibbs' poor shooting, Pitt hit 29 of 49 field goals and 4 of 9 from 3-point range.
Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown each had 17 points. Dixon added six steals and five rebounds.
--Pitt beat Xavier in the Sweet Sixteen in Boston last season in a nip-and-tuck game that went down to the final minute. Levance Fields hit a 3-pointer and made a layup in the final minute to tip the scales in Pitt's favor.
--Pitt finished the season as the Big East's top defensive team, holding opponents to 61.4 points per game. It has held 19 of its 33 opponents to 60 points or less.
--This Panther squad has already accomplished more than what was expected in October. Pitt was picked to finish ninth place in the conference in the preseason poll, but has now extended its streak of 20-win seasons and NCAA Tournament appearances to nine seasons.
COACH: Jamie Dixon, seven years at Pittsburgh, seven years in NCAA Tournament
KEYS TO VICTORY: Jermaine Dixon is likely to draw Xavier scorer Jordan Crawford, who nailed five 3-pointers in the first round and scored 28 points. The Musketeers are balanced and have three players capable of dribble penetration into the teeth of the Panthers' defense. Pitt excelled smothering teams that chose to live by the 3-point shot, but didn't have as much success when teams with capable shooters showed patience and disciplined to work the clock for quality shots. Pittsburgh is going to have to play well on the inside, particularly defensively, if it hopes to advance in the NCAA Tournament. The inside players have been up and down, and Gary McGhee, Nasir Robinson, Gilbert Brown and Dante Taylor will have to hold their own in the paint, to give the Panther guards like Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker room to move on the perimeter.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "People say you're only as good as winning a national title. So people do get spoiled with us just getting to the Sweet Sixteen, but this year we're going to try to make a run and get as far as we can go. We feel as though we have the team to get to the championship game and win it.'' -- Jermaine Dixon on expectations of Pitt in the NCAA Tournament.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING REPORT: There is no Panther more excited to start playing non-Big East teams again than Ashton Gibbs. The Pitt guard started the season on fire, but had a much harder time of it once the league adjusted and started focusing more on denying him a good look at the basket. When he's shooting the ball well, the Panthers are tough to beat, so denying him those opportunities is essential to any team that hopes to beat Pitt.
Notre Dame 50, Pittsburgh 45 (Big East tournament quarterfinals)
Pitt 89, Oakland 66 (NCAA Tournament first round)
vs. Xavier today at 5 p.m. at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisc. (NCAA Tournament second round)
--G Ashton Gibbs was honored by the Big East by being named the conference's Most Improved Player. He increased his scoring average by nearly 12 points per game between his freshman and sophomore seasons. This award is old hat for the Panthers, however, as the team has won it six times in the last 11 years.
--C Gary McGhee hasn't replaced the production of the departed DeJuan Blair, but he has emerged as a presence in the paint in his junior season. He leads the team by averaging seven rebounds per game, and is averaging 7.2 points per night.
--F Dante Taylor was expected to step right into the starting lineup, but the much-heralded freshman found the transition to the college game more difficult than expected. However, he has emerged as a more effective player over the past month, since ending a four-game scoreless streak in early February.
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