It was a slam dunk a couple of weeks ago that Pitt would win the Big East Conference regular-season championship and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That was when the Panthers had a two-game lead in the league and owned a nearly blemish-free NCAA resume.
That dunk didn't go down yet. It rimmed out, went high in the air and is rolling around the cylinder.
Fourth-ranked Pitt, which has lost two of its past three games, still controls its destiny for the regular-season title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but there might not be any margin for error in the final week of the season.
With Notre Dame beating Villanova Monday night, Pitt's lead is down to a half game entering its game tonight at South Florida. A loss to the 15th-place Bulls would give Notre Dame, based on its head-to-head victory against the Panthers at Petersen Events Center, a leg up in the conference title race.
Game: No. 4 Pitt (25-4, 13-3 Big East) vs. South Florida (9-20, 3-13), 9 p.m. today, USF Sun Dome, Tampa, Fla.
TV, radio, Internet: ESPN-U, KDKA-FM (93.7), www.pittsburghpanthers.com.
Pitt: Coming off 62-59 overtime loss at Louisville. ... Beat South Florida, 67-55, last month at Petersen Events Center. ... Junior G Ashton Gibbs (16.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg) is 3 for 11 from 3-point range in the past two games. ... Senior G Gilbert Brown (11.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) scored 20 points against Louisville for his second 20-point game of the season. ... Junior F Nasir Robinson (8.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg) has 11 turnovers in the past three games.
South Florida: Snapped a six-game losing streak with an 86-76 victory at DePaul. ... Led by junior F Augustus Gilchrist (13.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and sophomore G Jawanza Poland (9.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg). ... 2-6 home record against Big East opponents.
Of note: Pitt is 8-0 when Robinson scores in double figures.
After almost an entire season with a cushion, the Panthers now face the likelihood of having to win their final two games to win their first Big East regular-season title in the past seven years.
"We're in a good position," coach Jamie Dixon said. "A lot of teams would like to be in our position."
Pitt can win the championship by winning at South Florida tonight and then beating Villanova in the regular-season finale Saturday afternoon at Petersen Events Center. The Panthers also can claim the title by winning one of their final two if Notre Dame loses Saturday at Connecticut.
"The pressure is on us, and we know what we have to prove," senior forward Gilbert Brown said.
"We know we're capable of winning these two games. We just have to go out there and put it together to bring home this regular-season championship."
Pitt will be a heavy favorite in both games. South Florida owns three Big East victories, two coming against last-place DePaul. The Bulls beat the Blue Demons over the weekend to snap a six-game losing streak. The last time the Bulls beat a Big East opponent other than DePaul was Jan. 16 against Providence, a team with an identical 3-13 conference record.
Villanova, picked to finish second in the conference in a preseason poll of the league's coaches, is in 11th with a 9-8 record. The Wildcats have lost five of their past seven games, with the only victories coming against Seton Hall and DePaul. The Wildcats needed overtime to beat the Blue Demons.
Pitt already has beaten the Bulls and Wildcats once. The Panthers beat South Florida, 67-55, two weeks ago at Petersen Events Center and won at Villanova, 57-54.
"We're not really feeling pressure, but we have to come out and execute," senior center Gary McGhee said. "We need two wins to win the conference. We're focusing on South Florida to get one step closer to the championship."
The game two weeks ago against South Florida was closer than the final score indicated. The Bulls trailed by one with 10 minutes remaining before the Panthers surged to a comfortable lead with an 18-3 spurt.
The Bulls, like many recent opponents, played a matchup zone that stalled the Panthers offense much of the game.
"Teams have been throwing zones at us the last couple of games," senior guard Brad Wanamaker said.
"We want to go out there and play from the jump, play with the lead and not play from behind."
Wanamaker said the key to beating the matchup zone is ball reversal and inside touches, something they have not done consistently in recent games against zone defenses.
South Florida's problem in that first game against Pitt was scoring, and the Bulls have had that problem all season. They are last in the Big East, averaging 62.3 points per game.
The Panthers, who were tabbed the preseason favorites in the conference, have it all laid out in front of them. Two victories in two games, and their goals can be attained.
"We can't worry about the pressure," Wanamaker said. "We just have to focus on winning one game at a time. Just go out and handle business."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230. First Published March 2, 2011 5:00 AM