In celebration of the two-millionth fan to enter Petersen Events Center, the Pitt athletic department will give each person attending a game today against Cincinnati a commemorative gift to mark the occasion. But after a season that had Pitt fans bear witness to as many home losses as the previous six seasons combined, a victory would be just as welcome.
The Big East Conference season gets underway today when No. 8 Cincinnati pays a visit to the No. 24 Panthers, who are looking to recapture the home-court advantage they used to dominate the Big East for the first decade in their building.
The Bearcats were one of six teams to win at Petersen Events Center last season. Wagner, Rutgers, Louisville, South Florida and West Virginia also chipped away at Petersen Events Center mystique that had been cultivated by so many years of stellar play at home.
"Before, teams used to be scared to come to Pittsburgh to play us, but the way we lost at home last year they probably feel like they can do it all the time," junior forward Lamar Patterson said. "It's our job to make sure we regain that home-court advantage."
Cincinnati was only the third Big East team since 2009 to win a game at Petersen Events Center New Year's Day 2012, but that three-point loss to the Bearcats was only the beginning of a terrible stretch at home to end the season. Three of the next four home losses were by double digits, including a 23-point loss to Rutgers and an 18-point loss to rival West Virginia.
The uncharacteristic home losses led to a 5-13 Big East record and a 13th-place finish in the conference, the worst since 1998-99.
Pitt could get some early answers about their quest to return to contender status. Two of the first three opponents are ranked and the next two after Cincinnati are on the road -- at Rutgers and No. 15 Georgetown.
The Bearcats, who have the third-most victories in the conference since 2010-11, lost for the first time Thursday to New Mexico. Both teams enter the game ranked but largely untested.
Pitt is the first ranked opponent for the Bearcats. The Panthers' only loss of the season came against their only ranked foe -- No. 2 Michigan. The Wolverines were the only non-conference opponent from a major conference.
"It's time," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "Everyone in our league has a good record. Now it's time to play good people and ranked people. It's the same every year. We have to come out and get off to a good start and stay healthy."
That certainly was not the case last season. The Panthers dropped their first eight in the conference and never got any positive momentum going. Injuries contributed to the long losing streak. Most notably, Tray Woodall's sports hernia hobbled him for most of the season. He missed six of the first seven conference games and never returned to full strength. Woodall is healthy this season and eager to make his senior season a memorable one.
"I just can't wait to play," Woodall said.
Cincinnati is an experienced and guard-oriented team that mirrors Pitt in a lot of respects. The Bearcats and Panthers are among the Big East leaders in defense and rebounding.
Pitt is first in the Big East in rebounding margin; Cincinnati is No. 2. Pitt is first in scoring defense; Cincinnati is No. 4.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin always has had teams that defend and rebound well, but the Bearcats have gained more respect in the national polls this season because of their arsenal of talented guards that have proven to be capable scorers.
All three of Cronin's starting guards are averaging in double figures. The top scorer is junior Sean Kilpatrick, who is averaging 18.8 points per game. Senior Cashmere Wright (14.0 ppg) and senior JaQuon Parker (11.8 ppg) fill out on the best backcourts in the Big East.
"They're really physical and old," Dixon said. "They're very experienced. They know how they want to play and play to their strengths."
Big East at the Pete
Pitt's record in Big East openers at home since the Petersen Events Center opened in 2002.
Season Opponent, Result
'02-'03 Notre Dame, W, 72-55
'03-'04 Virginia Tech, W, 78-59
'04-'05 Georgetown, L, 67-64
'05-'06Notre Dame, W, 100-97
'09-'10 DePaul, W, 65-52
'10-'11 Connecticut, W, 78-63
Note -- Pitt's Big East openers in '06-'07, '07-'08, '08-'09 and '11-'12 seasons were on the road
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1.