With a third of the Big East Conference schedule in the rear-view mirror, Pitt is exactly where it was supposed to be before the season began. In a preseason poll of the Big East coaches, the Panthers were predicted to finish in sixth place in the conference standings, and they are in a five-way tie in the fifth spot with Notre Dame, Georgetown, St. John's and Rutgers entering a game tonight against Providence at Dunkin' Donuts Center in Rhode Island.
Pitt was in a precarious position just one week ago after dropping three of their first four conference games, but after victories against Connecticut and Villanova last week the Panthers can get within shouting distance of the top teams in the league by the end of this week.
The Panthers play two of the worst teams in the conference this week, starting with tonight at Providence. After playing the Friars (10-8, 2-4 Big East) they play DePaul (10-8, 1-4) Saturday at Petersen Events Center. By beating the Huskies Saturday, the Panthers have reason to feel optimistic about the stretch run in their final season in the Big East.
"We were really looking forward to this game because we thought it could jump-start us," junior guard Trey Zeigler said after Pitt's 69-61 victory against the Huskies. "Hopefully, it gets us rolling in the right direction."
The victory gave the Panthers consecutive victories in league play for the first time this season. Extending the winning streak to four would be an important step for the Panthers because the schedule turns difficult next week.
After Providence and DePaul, the Panthers travel to play No. 5 Louisville (Monday) and then play host to No. 3 Syracuse Feb. 2. Those games are only the beginning of a brutal stretch of games in the next three weeks that also includes visits to No. 21 Cincinnati and Marquette (No. 26 with the most votes of any unranked team this week) and a home date Feb. 18 with No. 24 Notre Dame.
"Every game is big," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We've had two good road wins. Now we have to go get Providence. The key is to do it the way we've been doing it -- with defense and rebounding. It's good to come off a win."
Matchup: Pitt (15-4, 3-3 Big East) vs. Providence (10-8, 2-4), 7 p.m. today, Dunkin Donuts Center, Providence, R.I.
TV, Radio, Internet: ESPN2, KDKA-FM (93.7), www.pittsburghpanthers.com.
Pitt: Coming off 69-61 victory against Connecticut. ... Freshman G James Robinson (7.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg) scored 12 points vs. the Huskies for his second double-figure scoring game in the past 11. ... Senior G Tray Woodall (10.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg) scored 13 points for his most in a game since notching 14 Dec. 15 vs. Bethune-Cookman. ... Won meeting against a year ago vs. Providence, 86-74, at Petersen Events Center.
Providence: Coming off 69-66 victory against Villanova. ... Has won two of past three after losing five in a row. ... Led by Bryce Cotton (21.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg), LaDontae Henton (14.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and Kadeem Batts (14.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg). ... Cotton leads the Big East Conference with 54 3-point field goals and is shooting 41.5 percent from behind the arc.
Hidden stat: Pitt has won 11 of the past 12 against Providence and carries a 30-17 record against the Friars into the final scheduled game between the two schools.
Providence has won two of its past three after losing three in a row to open Big East play. The Friars have benefited from the return McDonald's All-American Kris Dunn, who missed the first nine games while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
Dunn, a freshman guard, is averaging 6.7 points per game and scored 13 for the Friars in their 69-66 victory Saturday against Villanova.
Dunn is one of three talented guards that Friars coach Ed Cooley has at his disposal. Junior Bryce Cotton leads the league in scoring and has made the most 3-pointers in the conference, and Vincent Council is rounding into form after missing a month with a hamstring injury. Council scored 15 points off the bench in the victory against Villanova.
The Panthers were able to win consecutive games because, Dixon said, they dominated the boards against Villanova and Connecticut. He believes it is the single biggest factor for the Panthers, who thrive on keeping possessions to a minimum for opposing teams.
"To me, it's the rebounding," Dixon said. "We're getting better. We haven't won all the games we've wanted to win, but hopefully we're getting to where we want to be."
Senior center Dante Taylor said the Panthers can string together some victories if they continue to play with the same approach they've used the past two games.
"We can definitely go on a run from here if we keep playing aggressive and hard," he said. "If we do that I think the sky is the limit for this team."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published January 22, 2013 5:00 AM