Ah, finally, a rivalry I can sink my teeth into. Pittsburgh and UConn face off tonight in what should be another epic rock fight, as these games always are. The Panthers are everything that Georgetown is not: an elite Big East program for essentially all of the last decade, a team that battled UConn for Big East titles year-in and year-out, and a worthy opponent with a football team so we have something to talk about between basketball seasons. (On second thought, maybe we shouldn't talk about football.)
The UConn-Pitt rivalry goes back 30 years, although my modern memory only goes back to 1998, when Khalid El-Amin stood on a table and taunted the Zoo (though I've never seen a video, just read about it), and since then, things have turned up a notch (BAM!): the Huskies and Panthers played three straight Big East Tournament title games, the first-ever on-campus edition of College GameDay, and two Top-5 matchups last year (the first of which saw DeJuan Bear introduce The Undertaker's legendary Tombstone piledriver to college basketball).
All in all, I really want to beat the hell out of Pittsburgh. Hopefully, UConn does too: the Huskies are still looking for their first win over a ranked opponent, and will continue to be a popular "THEY DON'T DESERVE THEIR MEANINGLESS RANKING" punching bag among the pundits until that changes.
Below the jump, a quick primer on tonight's UConn-Pitt game (7 p.m., ESPN2; Panthers vs Huskies coverage).
I don't quite know where the Panthers came from this year. Pitt lost DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, and point guard Fatty Fatty Fat Fat from the team that was six seconds or so from a Final Four berth.
But the Panthers have put together some impressive wins this year, none moreso than being one of two teams (the other, of course, being America's #2 university when it comes to awesomeness) to hand Syracuse a loss this season.
Looking at Pitt's schedule, there are a couple headscratchers that appear to back up reports of Pittsburgh's demise. On Dec. 4, Pitt beat New Hampshire 47-32 in the worst men's Division I basketball game ever played (Pitt led at halftime, 15-7). Then four days later, the Panthers lost to an Indiana team that will struggle to win more than three or four Big 10 games this year.
Pitt hasn't lost since. Wins over the Orange and Cincinnati have Pitt sitting atop the Big East at 3-0, and Jamie Dixon's haircut remains as frightening as ever. It's helped to have a guy like Ashton Gibbs, who's averaging 18 ppg and shooting 40% from 3-point range. Among other contributors, take note of Brad Wanamaker (12.2 ppg), and forwards Gilbert Brown (10 ppg off the bench) and 6-9 freshman Dante Taylor (the fourth-best offensive rebounder by percentage in the country, according to KenPom)
Now, as for UConn, Porter posted a nice look at the Huskies' 'woes' yesterday, and the stats seem to back up what we're seeing with our eyes: this is a flawed team that does certain things well, but has a couple stumbling blocks that will keep them in the lower half of the top 25 until/unless they solve them.
Porter's post says it better than I could, so I'll merely note that year two of the Kemba Walker experience has been so very disappointing. And I say this as someone who has an empty space in my bedroom closet reserved for a shrine to all things Kemba.
On the positive side, UConn is 11-4 and potentially three plays from being 14-1 with wins over Georgetown and Kentucky. This team can play with anybody in America. The progress of Tuff McJuice and Alex Oriakhi is extremely encouraging, Gavin Edwards continues to impress, and Sticks and Dyson continue to do their fun/frustrating (funstrating?) thing.
On the negative side, Coach Cal is probably going to wish he had those wins in the bank after UConn loses to Pittsburgh, Texas, Marquette, Louisville, Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia, Louisville again and at Notre Dame to finish the regular season 18-13. (Maybe that's why he pointed out that tonight is .kind of important.) UConn turns the ball over and cowers in terror at a zone defense. They blew a 20-point friggin lead to Greg Monroe, Austin Freeman and a cast of irregular misfits on Saturday, for f---s sake.
The stats say Pitt and UConn are about equal - they rank 28th and 30th in the current KenPom ratings, and the most recent Vegas line I saw had UConn as a 6.5 favorite. Since the game is at home, and UConn ought to be filled with piss and vinegar after the Georgetown debacle, I'm going to predict a narrow, hard-fought UConn victory. It's certainly a good possibility, although less so if UConn goes to a zone against Gibbs, like they did on Saturday against Austin F'n Freeman.
Although I admit predicting a UConn win is based somewhat on the fear of UConn having three league losses less than a third of the way through the BE schedule. Because there's nothing like fear to prod me into rational prediction.
Prediction: UConn 67, Pittsburgh 61