They are the hottest team in the Big East Conference. The league named their coach the coach of the year and their best player the player of the year Tuesday night. They are contending for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
And, when the experts on television extol the virtues of the best team in the conference they are talking about them.
This team is not the Pitt Panthers, the Big East regular-season champion and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. The Big East darlings are the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who finished a close second behind Pitt in the conference standings and were the only team to beat the Panthers on their home court this season.
"Of course you see it," Pitt junior Ashton Gibbs said of the talk of Notre Dame being the best team in the conference. "It adds motivation."
- Game: No. 3 Pitt (27-4) vs. No. 21 Connecticut (22-9) or No. 22 Georgetown (21-9) in the quarterfinals, Madison Square Garden.
- When: Noon Thursday.
- TV: : ESPN
When it comes to the Big East tournament this week, Pitt's players are saying all the right things. They have tunnel vision on their first opponent -- Georgetown or Connecticut -- in the quarterfinals Thursday. They are taking it one game at a time. They are not looking ahead to Saturday night ...
But deep down, they all want a second shot at the Irish, who earned a 56-51 come-from-behind victory in January against the Panthers at the Petersen Events Center.
"It would be really good to get revenge," Gibbs said. "But we'll look forward to that once it comes. We'll take each game day by day. It would be very good to beat them, especially at the Big East tournament on a national stage."
In the 31-year history of the Big East tournament the top two seeds have advanced to the championship game 10 times, but it has become less and less frequent as the conference has become more competitive.
The previous time the top two seeds advanced to the title game was 2004, when No. 1 seed Pitt lost to No. 2 Connecticut.
With the Big East producing so many quality teams in recent years, the tournament has become a crap shoot. Three years ago, Pitt won the tournament championship as the No. 7 seed. In 2006, ninth-seeded Syracuse beat sixth-seeded Pitt in the title game. It was the first time a team won four games in four days to claim the title.
In the past six years, as many lower-seeded teams have reached the title game as higher-seeded teams. Georgetown made it to the title game as a No. 8 seed last season, and West Virginia did the same in 2005.
"The conference has just gotten better and better," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "It has continued to improve."
So as much as the Panthers want another opportunity to play Notre Dame recent history suggests the odds of the two meeting Saturday night are not good.
"It would be great to play against Notre Dame, but we'll just go out and play who is in front of us," senior guard Brad Wanamaker said.
This is the third time Pitt has been the No. 1 seed at the Big East tournament. In addition to losing to Connecticut in the championship game in 2004, the Panthers lost as the top seed in 1988, when they dropped a semifinal to Villanova.
Might winning the tournament take on less significance because the Panthers already have a regular-season championship banner and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament all but locked up? Wanamaker does not think so.
"This week is very important. We want to win the Big East tournament. That's one of our goals. The first was the regular-season championship. Now we want to win the Big East tournament."
And, if it comes at Notre Dame's expense, all the better.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230. First Published March 9, 2011 5:00 AM