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Pittsburgh poised to clinch the Big East title
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - The Big East schedule makers thought they booked one heck of a main event.
Pittsburgh vs. Villanova. Season finale. No. 1 vs. No. 2 with the conference championship on the line.
Time for a rewrite. The Panthers lived up to their heavyweight billing while the Wildcats were knocked out of the title picture weeks ago.
All No. 4 Pittsburgh has to do is beat slumping Villanova on Saturday to win the outright Big East championship and earn a No. 1 seed in next week’s conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.
“We want to be the only champion in the Big East,” Pitt forward Gilbert Brown said. “We’re going to do our best to bring it home.”
The Panthers (26-4, 14-3) are in wonderful shape to finish the season with a net-clipping celebration at the Petersen Events Center. The Panthers are 5-3 vs. Top 25 teams, have already defeated Villanova this season, and have won the last seven consecutive games in the series in Pittsburgh, including a 3-0 record vs. the Wildcats in The Pete, their new home which opened in 2002.
The Panthers clinched at least a share of the league title with Notre Dame this week, after a 66-50 victory over struggling South Florida.
“We don’t want to share it, that’s for sure,” guard Brad Wanamaker said. “We want to go out and end our careers at Peterson Events Center the right way.”
The Panthers survived a brief absence from leading scorer Ashton Gibbs, and still have a shot to take Manhattan as the top team in the toughest conference in the nation. Pitt has entered the Big East Tournament as the No. 1 seed only two times in school history: 1988 and 2004.
This year, though, the Panthers stayed atop the standings after they were picked No. 1 in the Big East coaches’ preseason poll.
“Knowing people had confidence and faith in us, then to actually come out and do what we’ve done this season has meant a lot,” Brown said. “We’re out to prove everybody right.”
What a refreshing change from teams that vow they’ll win it all to silence the doubters.
Brown, Wanamaker and Gary McGhee are already one of the most successful senior classes in school history and are determined to end their careers with the Final Four trip that has eluded coach Jamie Dixon and the Panthers.
But Dixon has done just about everything else. In fact, he hit his own milestone in Wednesday’s victory, setting an NCAA Division I record for most victories in the first eight seasons of a career with 214. That’s one more than Everett Case had at North Carolina State, and Roy Williams had at Kansas in their first eight years.
As for this season, the Panthers began it as the team to beat, and they’ll end it that way.
The 19th-ranked Wildcats (21-9, 9-8) were picked second in the Big East. But they’ll likely be lumped with traditional also-rans like Seton Hall and DePaul in the first round of the conference tournament on Tuesday. The Wildcats’ freefall from 16-1 to the worst ranked team in the poll was impossible for coach Jay Wright to imagine weeks ago.
Villanova has lost three straight games and five of seven overall. Corey Stokes missed time with turf toe and Corey Fisher is battling severe tendinitis in his right knee. The back-end of the schedule was stuffed with Top 25 teams, and a roster with little depth simply didn’t improve down the stretch.
“I realize what we’ve done,” Wright said, “the opportunities that we’ve lost.”
The hits keep coming for the Wildcats. Assistant coach Jason Donnelly was forced into practice this week, and walk-on Dallas Ouano dislocated his knee.
Wright takes the blame with the rest of the staff for not having the Wildcats ready down the stretch. This is the second straight season that Villanova has collapsed in the final weeks, and they were eliminated last year in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Wright is optimistic, though, that the Wildcats can spark their season with a win over Pitt. But for a coach who stresses the Big East regular season as the true barometer of the state of the program, this season has not been a success.
“In terms of being the best team we could at the end of the year, I don’t think so,” he said. “But the year’s not over. We would have expected to be in a better position. You can’t argue that.”
The worst loss came Monday night, a 93-72 beating at Notre Dame. Ben Hansbrough hit seven of Notre Dame’s school-record 20 3-pointers and the Irish led by as many as 32 points.
Wright scrapped practice the next day and held a team meeting where the Wildcats, “talked about the reality of going out there and getting our butts kicked.”
For the first time this season, Wright admitted concern over his players’ mental state. Losing takes a toll and blowouts are even worse. Toss in the Big East title aspirations that faded away, and only a deep run in the NCAA tournament could erase the memories of the past month.
Beating Pitt, of course, would ease those confidence concerns. But it won’t be easy.
“They might not have the marquee players,” Wright said, “but this is the best Pitt team we’ve ever played against.”
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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