NEW YORK -- Wednesday began a season of goodbyes for Pitt basketball after 30 years in the Big East.
Coach Jamie Dixon and four of his players attended their final conference media day. Soon they'll make their final trips to places such as Georgetown, Villanova, Providence, where the Panthers have become so well-known over the years.
Before you know it, they'll be inside Madison Square Garden -- the place the Panthers call their home away from home -- for Pitt's final Big East tournament.
Hard feelings from the remaining teams in the conference might not make it a weepy farewell tour, but Dixon let his feelings be known as he embarks on his final swing through the league before Pitt enters the Atlantic Coast Conference next summer.
"Coaching in the Big East, other coaches would probably say it's a dream come true," Dixon said inside the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan.
"To me, growing up in California, the Big East was our favorite conference to watch. It wouldn't be a dream come true, because it wasn't even fathomable to think I would be a coach in the Big East."
Dixon described his feelings about leaving the Big East as bittersweet. When Ben Howland convinced him to take an assistant coaching position on his staff in 1999, they trumpeted the Big East to recruits in hopes of luring more talented players to campus after four losing seasons in Ralph Willard's five-year tenure as head coach. They figured it was all they had.
"When we came from Northern Arizona, we didn't have the [Petersen Events Center], we didn't have the winning tradition," Dixon said. "We didn't have great players. What we sold was the Big East Conference and New York. That's what we told players.
"You get to play in the best conference. You get to play in the Big East. That was our selling point. That's what it meant to us. It defined our program. It defined our university. I don't think there's any question about it.
"We're a university that is 225 years old this year. We have one of the best medical schools in the country. We have one of the best law schools in the country. But your conference affiliation oftentimes defines you more than anything."
It took Pitt a while to get its footing in the Big East after joining in '82.
The Panthers did not win a regular-season championship until '88 and did not win the prestigious postseason conference tournament at Madison Square Garden until 2003.
But since the turn of the century, no team in the conference has won as consistently as Pitt, and Dixon would like to take that distinction with him when the Panthers leave after the season.
Since '01, Pitt is 129-57 in Big East play. The Panthers appeared in 10 NCAA tournaments over those years and won a combined six conference regular-season and tournament titles, which are also the best in the conference in the 11-year stretch.
Dixon's message to his players this season is to finish as the Big East's most dominant program.
"It's a love-hate feeling," junior forward Lamar Patterson said of the final season in the league. "The Big East is where Pittsburgh made its name. As long as we leave on a high note and get Pittsburgh to where it's usually at -- at the top of the Big East -- I feel like it will be a successful season."
Senior point guard Tray Woodall said the Panthers are eager to play after 5-13 finish in conference play last season. They were chosen to finish sixth in a poll of the league's head coaches, but they have much higher aspirations.
"I want to finish it out right and finish my career on a high note," Woodall said. "We're definitely going to miss it. It's going to be fun. I'm excited for what's going to happen this year."
The Big East will lose three of its top six teams to the ACC. The next most successful team since '01 is Syracuse (124-62). Notre Dame owns the sixth-best record in that time.
Dixon pointed out that the ACC will have six former Big East teams by the time Notre Dame officially enters the league after Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech left in '03.
Houston, SMU and Central Florida will join Memphis and Temple in the new Big East. It's a much different landscape than when Dixon entered the league more than 13 years ago.
"I don't wish ill will on the Big East," Dixon said. "How could you? It's been so good to us. It's been a friend, a partner, our home for 30 years. I hope they have great success and will continue on.
"We're leaving a great place and we're going to a great place. Usually, when people move, they're moving from a bad place for a good place. It's beyond our control. It's college athletics the way it is today.
"TV and money factor in. It's been great for us, but, at the same time, every other school would have done the same thing. They may not say that, but we all know what they would have done."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published October 18, 2012 4:00 AM