PITTSBURGH (AP) -The Big East tournament has always been a big deal for Pitt - perhaps too big a deal.
Pitt traditionally does well in New York, only to fade fast in the NCAA tournament. With their NCAA seeding not likely to be significantly altered by this week's Big East tournament, the second-ranked Panthers could be excused for looking ahead.
Maybe they should, given they have averaged 27 wins since 2001-02 and played in seven Big East title games in eight seasons, yet they haven't played in an NCAA regional final since 1974. Their one and only Final Four appearance came 68 years ago.
Talk about overdue.
DeJuan Blair, who grew up in Pittsburgh and is very aware of the Panthers' long string of NCAA disappointments, hung up a Detroit Final Four poster in his room months ago.
re? We're hot, but we haven't always played to our ability. If we play to our ability, the sky's the limit. It's going to be something to see.''
The Panthers (28-3) played one of their best regular-season games in years on Saturday, beating UConn 70-60 for their second victory over the top-ranked Huskies in less than a month. The victory jumped them to a close second behind North Carolina in the latest AP poll, and the Panthers are a contender for the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Of course, they need to avoid a major letdown in Madison Square Garden, where they are 17-4 since the 2002-03 season. The Knicks only wish they were so good there.
Coach Jamie Dixon is convinced the Big East tournament is the best in the country, not only because of the competition - three teams in the top five - but because of the setting.
``It's a great event,'' Dixon said. ``I guess some could say that the ACC is comparable, but I don't think so.''
There's no doubt Dixon wishes the NCAA tournament wasn't an issue until the Big East is over, but he knows that's not possible. Not with his team ranked this high, and with so much speculation about this being the Pitt team best equipped to handle a deep NCAA run.
kets when necessary. Young is coming off one of the best games by any Pitt player of any era, a 31-point effort against UConn.
Pitt is known for its clampdown defense, but the Panthers' 78.5 points-per-game average is up nearly five points from a year ago.
``They're going to be a tough out in the tournament,'' UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. ``Pitt has all the components of a national championship-caliber team. I told Jamie that - they're one of the best offensive teams. They're more fun to watch.''
By finishing second during the Big East regular season, the Panthers earned a double bye and won't play in New York until Thursday. They practiced Tuesday in Pittsburgh before heading to New York.
``Everybody knows New York is our second home, so we're going to go out and have fun,'' Blair said. ``Everybody's going to be ready for this. It's going to be a fun ride the rest of the way out.''
Last year, the Panthers won four games in four days to win the school's second Big East tournament title, an exhausting run that may have affected them a week later. They beat Oral Roberts 82-63 in the NCAA opening round, but lost to Michigan State 65-54 in the second round.
Such a performance this season won't be nearly good enough for these Panthers, who have the highest ranking of any Pitt team so late in a season.
air said. ``We have that mind-set that we're not going to let anything get in front of us.''
Not No. 3 Connecticut or No. 5 Louisville in the Big East? Or, perhaps down the road, No. 1 North Carolina?
``The only people who can beat us is ourselves,'' Blair said. ``So we need to keep playing good, and coach needs to keep coaching well and keep doing what he's doing. If we keep doing what we do, everything's going to come together. It's going to be good.''
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