Freshman Durand Johnson and the Pitt Panthers will take on Big East rival Connecticut for the last time in the forseeable future Saturday at Petersen Events Center.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Ben Howland interviewed for the head coach position at Pitt in 1999, he sold athletic director Steve Pederson on the philosophy he used to turn Northern Arizona into an NCAA tournament team.
"Recruit to Shoot" was his motto, and Howland and his top assistant, Jamie Dixon, planned to use the same philosophy in the Big East with the Panthers -- outscore opponents by recruiting a stable of quality outside shooters.
That plan went down the tubes when they saw their new conference up close and personal.
"Recruit to Shoot" was quickly scrapped for a "bump and grind" style better suited to their new rugged league.
Howland and Dixon studied the top teams in the Big East shortly after arriving and came to the conclusion a different breed of player had to be recruited to Pitt. The program they studied the most was Connecticut, which was fresh off its first national championship.
Three years later, Pitt and Connecticut played in the Big East tournament championship game, the first of three consecutive meetings between the two that jump-started a rivalry that likely will end today when the Huskies visit Petersen Events Center for the final scheduled game in the series.
Connecticut beat Pitt in double overtime to win the 2002 Big East tournament. Pitt won its first Big East tournament title the next year and then lost again to the Huskies in the 2004 final at Madison Square Garden.
Matchup: Connecticut (12-4, 2-2 Big East) vs. Pitt (14-4, 2-3), noon today, Petersen Events Center.
Pitt: Coming off 58-43 victory Wednesday at Villanova. ... Has lost its past two games to Connecticut -- a 2011 Big East Conference tournament game and a regular-season game at Gampel Pavilion a year ago. ... Junior F Talib Zanna (12.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) is 1 for 11 from the field and has scored seven points in the past two games. ... Senior G Tray Woodall (10.6 ppg, 5.6 apg) is 12 for 38 from the field and has not scored more than 11 points in any of the first five Big East games.
Connecticut: Coming off 73-58 home loss Monday to No. 1 Louisville. ... Led by junior G Shabazz Napier (17.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and sophomore G Ryan Boatright (15.8 ppg, 4.6 apg). ... Sophomore F DeAndre Daniels (10.9 ppg) and freshman G Omar Calhoun (10.7 ppg) also average in double figures. ... Coach Kevin Ollie, a former Huskies player and assistant coach, is in his first season.
Hidden stat: Pitt's starting backcourt of Woodall and freshman James Robinson is 5 for 25 from 3-point range in Big East games.
Pitt and Connecticut played a few memorable games before 2002 -- the Khalid El-Amin game at Fitzgerald Field House, for one. El-Amin scored the winning layup for the Huskies and then thumped his chest atop the scorer's table in front of the Pitt student section.
But the Big East tournament championship games laid the foundation for a heated rivalry that ensued for the past decade.
Before last year's meeting at Connecticut when both teams were not ranked, the past five games were played with both teams in the top 25. In their two regular-season meetings in 2009, both were ranked in the top five. Twice in a span of three weeks, the Panthers knocked off Connecticut when the Huskies were the No. 1-ranked team.
When Pitt traveled to the XL Center in Hartford for a mid-February game, the Panthers never had beaten a No. 1 team in 13 tries. DeJuan Blair set the tone early in that game when he flipped Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet onto his back in a tussle for a rebound. Blair scored 22 points and pulled down 23 rebounds, and Sam Young scored a game-high 25 points in Pitt's 76-68 victory.
In the 2009 regular-season finale at Petersen Events Center, Connecticut had ascended to the top spot in the polls again after Pitt dropped a road game at Providence.
This time, Young scored 31 points to lead Pitt to a 70-60 victory. The Panthers became the ninth team in the history of college basketball to beat the No. 1 team twice in the same season.
More recently, there was the 2011 Big East tournament game when the Huskies beat the top-seeded Panthers after Kemba Walker executed a move on Gary McGhee and nailed the winning jump shot as time expired. The Huskies kept winning and a few weeks later won their third NCAA title.
Once again, a victory against Pitt in March helped pave the way to a national title for Connecticut, just as it did in 2004.
That's the one major difference between the two programs. Pitt has not enjoyed the NCAA tournament success that Connecticut has. Pitt's best NCAA run under Howland or Dixon was an appearance in the Elite Eight in 2009.
But Pitt has matched Connecticut win for win in Big East games. And in the past 12 years, the Panthers and Huskies have combined for 12 Big East regular-season or tournament championships.