Big East Tournament: Keeping sharp is key for Pitt

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NEW YORK -- The first four games of the Big East men's basketball tournament took place Tuesday afternoon and evening. Four more games are on tap today and two more Thursday afternoon before Pitt finally takes the court for its quarterfinal-round game at 7 p.m. Thursday.

More than half of the tournament's games will be played and 10 of the conference's teams will be eliminated before the Panthers even set foot inside Madison Square Garden. But don't expect the Panthers to get stale or lose focus. Not after what happened last season.

Pitt was the No. 2 seed for that tournament and a prohibitive favorite to advance to another Big East championship game. The opponent in the quarterfinal round was West Virginia, a team the Panthers had easily handled twice during the regular season.

But a lackluster effort led to an uncharacteristic early exit from the tournament for Pitt after being upset by the No. 7-seeded Mountaineers, 74-60.

"That was something where we didn't come prepared to play that game," sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs said. "West Virginia was a team we beat twice last year. They came after us. You can't do that in this conference. You have to come out and play each and every night."

Pitt is the No. 2 seed in the tournament again this season and is bent on avoiding a similar fate. The Panthers had enjoyed remarkable Big East tournament success before last season. They had played in three consecutive championship games and seven of the previous eight.

Last season marked only the second time in the past nine that Pitt did not play in the championship game.

"We're a very hungry team," junior guard Brad Wanamaker said. "Yeah, I was on the championship team as a freshman, but I didn't contribute all that much. I have a chance this year to do so, and so do some other guys. We're going out there with an attitude to win, and that's what we want to do."

Pitt won championships in 2008 and '03. The Panthers lost in the title game in 2001, '02, '04, '06 and '07.

This week, Syracuse is the No. 1 seed, Pitt No. 2, West Virginia No. 3 and Villanova No. 4.

"We've been working hard all season," Gibbs said. "We got a No. 2 seed. We can't let it go to waste now. We have to keep working hard in practice and let it carry over into games."

Pitt won't be lacking for motivation in its first game. Pitt's opponent will be Notre Dame or Seton Hall. The 10th-seeded Pirates defeated No. 15 seed Providence Tuesday night to advance to the second round.

No. 7 seed Notre Dame trounced Pitt by 15 points two weeks ago and Seton Hall topped Pitt by three in late January.

When Pitt won the Big East championship in '08, the Panthers had to beat two teams in the tournament that had defeated them during the final month of the regular season. The Panthers topped Louisville in overtime in a quarterfinal-round game and Marquette in the semifinals after losing to the Cardinals and Golden Eagles that February.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon admitted that the Panthers might have an edge in a similar scenario this week.

"There is something to that in some ways," he said.

Even though Pitt lost in its first tournament game last year, Dixon will keep the same routine for the players as in years past. The team will practice today at Baruch College in Manhattan and then the players will watch the Notre Dame-Seton Hall game in their hotel rooms before a late-night meeting to get a scouting report on the winner.

"We've had great success doing it that way," Dixon said. "It's worked. We have our scouting reports done and ready for all opponents. As soon as the game is over, the guys know to go to the video room and we'll go through the team that we're playing. It will be quick because we want to get them rested for the next day."

Ray Fittipaldo: or 412-263-1230. First Published March 10, 2010 5:00 AM


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