Early meeting of Pitt and Connecticut unusual
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Nothing gets the juices flowing like a Pitt-Connecticut game, but this year you will have to put aside the egg nog to witness one of the great rivalries in college basketball.
Pitt and Connecticut have been the Big East Conference's top two programs over the past decade and have a history of playing exciting and meaningful contests that help shape the course of the season.
Who can forget the two games two seasons ago when the Panthers twice knocked off the Huskies when they were the No. 1-ranked team in Division I? Or those three games in 2004, when both teams were ranked in the top 10 for all three meetings, with the rubber match going to the Huskies in the Big East tournament championship game?
When No. 6 Pitt plays No. 4 Connecticut tonight at the Petersen Events Center, it will be the seventh time in the past 12 meetings that both teams are ranked in the top 10 of The Associated Press poll.
Game: No. 6 Pitt (12-1) vs. No. 4 Connecticut (10-0), 8:30 p.m. today, Petersen Events Center.
TV, radio, Internet: ESPN2, KDKA-FM (93.7), www.pittsburghpanthers.com.
Pitt: Coming off 61-46 victory against American. ... Playing Connecticut for the 58th time. ...Has a 27-30 record against the Huskies but has won the past three and four of the past five. ... Senior F Gilbert Brown (11.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg) is averaging 19.3 points and is shooting 60 percent from the field (21 for 35) over the past three games. ... Junior G Ashton Gibbs (16.5 ppg, 2.5 ppg) has scored in double figures in 12 of the first 13 games.
Connecticut: Coming off 81-52 victory against Harvard. ... 15-16 in Big East openers and 8-9 in road openers. ... Junior G Kemba Walker (26.5 ppg) has scored 20 or more points in nine consecutive games, third-longest streak in school history. ... Sophomore C Alex Oriakhi (11.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg) has three double-doubles, including two in consecutive games against Michigan State and Kentucky in November.
Of note: Pitt is 7-0 against teams ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll at the Petersen Events Center.
So what in the world are these two conference powers doing playing two days after Christmas in the Big East opener?
"It's a big, big game for two days after Christmas," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "Selfishly, I would love to see even more attention paid to these games."
That's not the only reason Calhoun does not like playing this game so early in the conference schedule. He does not believe the Big East schedule should begin until the first week of January because it's tough to get a team ready to play conference games during the holiday season.
"Let's give everyone a chance to get through the holiday season and go," Calhoun said. "When you're traveling two days after Christmas to play the best team in the league ... I'm just not talking about us. I'm talking about some of the other games this week. I personally don't like it.
"If it comes down to the end, and people are looking for high seeds for the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament, I wouldn't want to see a game two days after Christmas here cost somebody."
The Big East changed the beginning dates for conference games to the week after Christmas a few years back when the league went to an 18-game schedule.
In defense of the Big East and its television partners, Connecticut was picked to finish 10th in the league in a preseason poll of the league's coaches. This game will be televised nationally on ESPN2, but it was not pegged by the television executives as one of marquee games this season when the schedule was put together during the summer.
The Huskies, who started the season unranked, bring a 10-0 record into the contest. Junior guard Kemba Walker is the star of a young team. Calhoun said seven freshmen made the trip and 9 of the 12 players who will dress never have played inside the Petersen Events Center.
Connecticut has victories against Michigan State and Kentucky on its resume, but this will be the Huskies' first road game. The wins against the Spartans and Wildcats were at the Maui Invitational.
"It's tough, but it's good for us," Walker said. "I think we're ready for the challenge and the start of the Big East. You can't task for a tougher game.
"Everyone always asks me, 'How do you get the freshmen ready for the Big East?' Words can't explain it. You just have to come in and play your best. This game can't happen in a tougher place. Their student section is the best in the country."
Pitt and Connecticut are Nos. 1 and 2 in the Big East in the past 10 seasons. The Panthers have built a 109-41 league record while the Huskies have been 103-47.
Pitt has had Connecticut's number in recent years, winning three games in a row and four of the past five.
"They always stick to their game plan and play extremely hard," Walker said. "That's really it. They really don't have any star players or big-time players. But they're a solid team."
Walker is a bona fide star and is having an All-American type of season. He is second in the nation in scoring (26.5 points per game) and has scored 30 or more four times in the first 10 games.
"Kemba is having a really good season for them," Pitt senior center Gary McGhee said. "He's a great player. He likes to get out in transition and get a lot of easy layups. We have to make sure everyone is in gaps. He pushes the tempo of the game. We have to slow him down and try to make him play the halfcourt game."
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is not surprised Connecticut has won with such an inexperienced team. He said it always is dangerous to underestimate a coach the caliber of Calhoun and the highly recruited players he brings in every year.
Most Pitt-Connecticut games are close games that come down to the wire, and he is expecting nothing less tonight.
"Every game has been a battle," Dixon said. "Wherever it's been, whatever day of the year it's been, it's lived up to its billing. I anticipate it being the same this game.
"You have to pick somebody ninth and 10th that has won year after year and had success. Last year, we were picked ninth and finished second. It shouldn't be a surprise.
"I talked about Syracuse many years back. Every year, I think they'd be rebuilding, and I've finally given up on that. It's the same thing with Connecticut. They're going to have good players ready to go."
First Published December 27, 2010 12:00 am