Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Rivalry

Somehow -- a product of good, tough teams and gritty, physical battles, etc. -- UConn-Pitt has emerged as the Big East's best rivalry, at least over the past decade.

As Pitt's game notes eagerly point out, the Panthers and Huskies, respectively, are the Big East's two winningest programs over the past 10 years. Pitt is 233-58 (.801 winning percentage) overall and 99-36 in the Big East, while UConn is 218-67 overall and 98-38 in league play. During that period, Pitt has made eight NCAA tournament appearances and UConn has made seven. The schools have met in three of the last eight Big East championship games (with UConn winning two of them), and both boast five Sweet 16 appearances in the last eight years.

(Pitt's notes conveniently neglect the fact that the Panthers have yet to reach a Final Four, while UConn has been to three and won a pair of national titles).

Over the series' last 10 games, it's tied at 5-5, with each game decided by 10 points or fewer. In nine of the last 10 matchups, both teams entered the game ranked in the AP Top 25, as they do again tomorrow night (UConn at No. 15, Pitt at No. 16).

Their battles over the past decade have left indelible images on the college hoops landscape – from double-overtime classics in the Big East tournament championship game to DeJuan Blair flipping Hasheem Thabeet over his back last February.

Both teams suffered huge defections to the NBA last spring (Thabeet and A.J. Price from UConn, Blair and Sam Young from Pitt) and other key losses (Jeff Adrien, Craig Austrie, Levance Fields, Tyrell Biggs).

“Jamie Dixon probably has done as good a job of getting his team ready (as anyone in the country),” Jim Calhoun said of the Panthers’ seventh-year head coach. “They lost some very, very good players, certainly – as we did ourselves … We have some good players back, they have some good players back. They’ve been able to avoid a couple of losses that we haven’t been able to avoid.”

The Panthers, who entered the Top 25 for the first time this season this week, have topped No. 5 Syracuse on the road and won at Cincinnati on Jan. 4. The Huskies, of course, lost at Cincy in their Big East opener.

The Panthers have won six straight and nine of its last 10. After early-season losses to No. 1 Texas, as well as a double-overtime set back to Duquesne and a loss to struggling Indiana, Pittsburgh has been bolstered by the return four games ago of Jermaine Dixon (right foot injury) and Gilbert Brown (academic suspension).

Pitt has won four straight road contests and nine of its last 12 away from home. A win over UConn would give the Panthers three straight Big East road wins for the first time in school history.

***It's hard to believe, but tomorrow night will be just the second time Jerome Dyson has ever played against Pitt and the first time since his freshman season. Dyson was sitting out a suspension two years ago when the Panthers came to Hartford and missed both of last year’s battles after suffering a season-ending injury against Syracuse.

“I feel like I’ve watched a lot more games than I’ve played in,” Dyson noted. “This time last year, I was looking forward to the big game, and I got hurt. It’ll be nice to get out there. We definitely need the win.”

***It will be interesting to see how UConn responds in its first game since squandering a 19-point lead Saturday in a loss to Georgetown. Jim Calhoun said he’ll know if his team is over that loss “somewhere around 9 p.m. (tonight),” adding that the team had a decent practice Monday after Sunday’s day off. According to Dyson, the Georgetown loss “is still tough for me, even now … It’s definitely still lingering around us.”

***Calhoun was asked today at practice about the recent firing of DePaul head coach Jerry Wainwright, who hasn't won a league game over the past two seasons.

“It’s hard to believe that, all of a sudden in the middle of January, it’s going to change anything. If you have those plans, you’re going to be able to execute them in the first week of March. It doesn’t make anybody look good – the university, college basketball. I happen to know both the A.D., who I like very much, and Jerry Wainwright, who I have great respect for, one of the best guys in the business. If you pull the plug in mid-season, it’s not exactly the best example to make."

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