Collision Course: Panthers vs. Blue Devils at the Garden

In college basketball, the litmus test for greatness is playing Duke. After several unexpected detours, Pitt gets its shot to see if it measures up to the Blue Devils tomorrow night in New York

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Pitt and Duke will play for the first time in almost 28 years tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden. The last time they met, Pitt was in the Eastern Eight and the best college basketball team in town was Duquesne.

The coach at Duke was Bill Foster, and Mike Krzyzewski was an unknown coach at Army.

Yes, much has changed since 1980.

Since Duke beat Pitt at Fitzgerald Field House that January night, the Blue Devils have become the symbol of success in college basketball. Krzyzewski, who became coach in the spring of 1980, has led Duke to 23 NCAA tournament appearances, 10 Final Fours and three NCAA championships.

More recently, Pitt has established itself as a national basketball power. Under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon, the Panthers have made the Sweet 16 four times in the past six seasons and have become part of the college basketball elite.

Since 2001, Pitt is the fifth-best program in NCAA Division I with a 172-41 record. The team Pitt is chasing is the same one every other basketball program has in the past three decades -- Duke. The Blue Devils are the winningest team in the nation since 2001, with a 177-38 record.

"We've watched them growing up," junior point guard Levance Fields said. "You see them on TV a lot every year. We were this close to playing them in the tournament last year, but it obviously didn't happen. Finally, we now have a chance to play them. It will be great. We're looking forward to it."

Pitt and Duke were on collision courses in two recent NCAA tournaments, but upsets thwarted those showdowns. In 2002, Duke and Pitt were the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the same NCAA bracket in Lexington, Ky., but Indiana upset the Blue Devils and Kent State upset the Panthers in third-round games.

Last season, they were in the same bracket in Buffalo. Pitt was the No. 3 seed and Duke the No. 6 seed. Pitt held up its end of the bargain by beating Wright State in the first round, but No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth upset the Blue Devils.

"It's a big game," junior forward Tyrell Biggs said. "We kind of go into the game feeling like we have to defend the Big East. We've been waiting for this game for a long time, pretty much since last year when we played VCU instead of Duke. There's a lot of energy built up for this game."

Despite the striking similarities between the two programs over the past seven years, Pitt and Duke are not similar in the way they recruit. Biggs is the only player on Pitt's team Duke recruited, and Krzyzewski never offered a scholarship to Biggs.

Dick Groat, the former Duke star who is now Pitt's color commentator on radio broadcasts, said Krzyzewski "no longer recruits, he selects."

Krzyzewski has his pick among McDonald's All-Americans ever year. He has eight on his roster this season, including his three highly regarded freshmen who are among the top seven scorers on the team.

Dixon does not have any McDonald's All-Americans.

That's one reason Pitt freshman DeJuan Blair is looking forward to playing the Blue Devils.

"They didn't recruit me at all," said Blair, the Big East rookie of the week who had 20 points and 10 rebounds in Pitt's victory Saturday against Oklahoma State.

"That's another reason why I'm going to go all out on them. They have an excellent program. I wish I could have been recruited by them. They looked the other way and got who they wanted. And Pitt got who they wanted."

As much as Dixon tried to say this was just another game on the schedule, it was obvious that his players feel differently. The Panthers have played plenty of highly ranked teams in the Big East the past several years, but playing the brand-name Duke has grabbed their attention in another way.

"Yes, it's still another game, but it is Duke," Fields said. "Duke is a well-known program. To beat a team like that it would give us even more confidence. It's very big in that aspect."

"We get to play against them and see what we can do on the big stage," Blair said. "I can't wait. I'm not going to sleep that night, thinking about this game. It will be a fun game. You're going to a see a lot of smiles."




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


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