Pitt-UConn the beast of Big East rivalries

Huskies, Panthers bring out the best in each other

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Rivalries come and go over the years. Games that once defined Big East basketball for a generation are now just other games on the schedule. No one blinks an eye anymore when St. John's plays Georgetown, for example.

But, in the past six years, no rivalry in the Big East can compare to Pitt-Connecticut.

In five-plus seasons of rugged Big East play, one game separates the Panthers and the Huskies heading into their game tonight at the Petersen Events Center.

Connecticut is 64-20 since 2001 in conference play. Pitt is 63-21. No other Big East team has more than 54 victories in that time.

"We've had a great history of games," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "If you would have told me eight years ago that this would become a rivalry that it's become now I think you would have caught a lot of people by surprise. When we got here eight years ago their program was the kind of program you want to emulate in a lot of ways."

Pitt and Connecticut have played 10 times since 2001. Connecticut has a 6-4 advantage. Only one of those games was decided by more than 10 points. Each team has won on the other's home court. Three of those games were played at Madison Square Garden in a conference title game, including a double-overtime classic that the Huskies won.

"You've never seen a bad Pitt-Connecticut game," Pitt senior center Aaron Gray said. "There was the span when we were meeting up in the championship game every year. There are always a lot of great players. Maybe Connecticut gets more people in the NBA, but there are a lot of great players on both sides. The margin of victory cannot be that high. In my four years here there hasn't been a game that's been decided by more than [10] points. That just shows you how good of a rivalry it is."

Tonight's game will have a different feel, though. Connecticut enters the game unranked for the first time since 2003. The Huskies dropped out of The Associated Press poll after losing three of their past five games.

The defending Big East regular-season champions are in a rebuilding stage. Or in the case of Jim Calhoun's recruits, a reloading stage. Connecticut became the first school in history to have five players from its team selected in the NBA draft. Rudy Gay, Hilton Armstrong, Marcus Williams and Josh Boone were selected in the first round. Denham Brown was taken in the second round.

Only Armstrong and Brown had exhausted their college eligibility. Williams and Boone left a year early, Gay two years early.

That left Calhoun without one scholarship player with more than one year's experience entering the season.

Calhoun's team again is stacked with talented future professionals, but they are all learning on the job and are far from reaching their full potential. He is playing with eight freshmen and five sophomores.

"We've had some great, great games with Pittsburgh," Calhoun said. "I'm looking forward to a great game [tonight]. The linkage has been kept at Pitt with three or four guys coming back. We got caught this year. We just didn't expect everyone to go. We got caught without linkage for the first time in a few years. That's where we are."

The Huskies are immensely talented, but short on experience. Here's an example of Connecticut's talent level: Freshman center Hasheen Thabeet, who has 16 games of college experience under his belt, is projected to go higher in the NBA draft than Pitt's Gray.

The other players in Calhoun's rotation are all big-time recruits with national reputations. The problem is that they're all starting for the first time.

"We're an entirely different Connecticut team," Calhoun said. "We're trying to play the same way. The other night -- heaven forbid -- we played zone for 12 possessions. We hadn't done that in an awful long time."

Connecticut, like Pitt, is a program built around defense and rebounding. The Huskies are playing pretty good defense, but the rebounding has been a concern despite the presence of Thabeet, who stands 7 feet 3.

"We got outrebounded two games in a row," Calhoun said. "The last time that happened was four years ago. The other night St. John's had 17 offensive rebounds in the second half. That's very disturbing to us. If you do that against Pittsburgh, you're in trouble."

And now, under the strangest of circumstances, the team that Pitt modeled its program after is in a position where it is looking up at the Panthers and hoping to keep the league's best rivalry intact.

"There have been some great, great games between Pitt and Connecticut," Calhoun said. "We have to hold up our end. I know Pittsburgh will. We have to hold up our end. We're Connecticut. We may be young, but as I told our guys: To wear a Connecticut uniform doesn't mean you're a Connecticut player. To play [tonight] and have an opportunity to beat Pittsburgh -- knowing it's a daunting task -- that's what a Connecticut player can do. Not just wear the uniform, but play like a Connecticut player. We look forward to a good game."

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Aaron Gray will try to help the Panthers be the third team in a row to outrebound Connecticut.
Click photo for larger image.
Listen In
Audio commentary from yesterday's press conference featuring Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon and Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun:

Jamie Dixon
Pitt's rivalry with UConn
Preparing for the Huskies
Will a win give Pitt a stranglehold on the Big East?
Dixon's entire press conference

Jim Calhoun
Pitt is the best team in the Big East
Playing road games in the "Oakland Zoo"
His young team's inconsistency
The play of 7-foot 3-inch freshman Hashim Thabeed

Scouting Report

Matchup: No. 6 Pitt (16-2, 4-0 Big East) vs. Connecticut (13-3, 2-2), 7 p.m. today, Petersen Events Center.

TV, radio, Internet: ESPN2, WWSW-FM (94.5), WBGG-AM (970) and www.pittsburghpanthers.com.

Pitt: Coming off 74-69 victory against Georgetown. ... Junior guard Mike Cook scored 18 points and had five assists against the Hoyas. ... Sophomore G Levance Fields has 23 assists and seven turnovers in Big East play. ... Senior C Aaron Gray leads the team in scoring (14.7) and rebounding (9.8). ... Junior G Ronald Ramon is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range. ... 11-0 at the Petersen Events Center.

Connecticut: Coming off 68-59 victory at St. John's. ... Dropped out of the AP poll yesterday for the first time in 67 polls. ... Has lost three of its past five after starting the season with 11 consecutive victories. ... C Hasheem Thabeet, a 7-foot-3 freshman, scored 12 points, had 10 rebounds and 7 blocks against St. John's. ... Led by F Jeff Adrien (13.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg), G Jerome Dyson (12.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and G A.J. Price (11.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg). ... Leads the series against Pitt, 29-22, and has won four of the past six games.

Hidden Stat: Connecticut leads NCAA Division I in blocked shots per game (9.5).

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.


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