Pittsburgh’s strong play in recent Big East tournaments has been overshadowed by its relative lack of success in NCAA tournaments.
While ending that run of frustration is their ultimate goal this spring, the Panthers don’t plan on changing their approach to the conference tournament.
The Panthers - ranked second in the nation and seeded second in this tournament - begin their defense of their Big East tournament title when they meet West Virginia in a quarterfinals matchup Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
Pittsburgh (28-3) has advanced to seven of the last eight Big East title games, winning two championships in that stretch. The Panthers, though, haven’t played in an NCAA regional final since 1974. Their only Final Four appearance came 68 years ago.
The Panthers won last year’s Big East tournament by taking four victories in four days. After that exhausting run, they managed to win just once in the NCAA tourney before getting eliminated by Michigan State.
Though they admit they were fatigued, they’ve vowed not to hold anything back as they try to defend their title.
“Last year, I feel like it affected us a little bit, but now I think we’re ready,” All-Big East first-teamer DeJuan Blair said. “We have that mindset that we’re not going to let anything get in front of us.”
While some have suggested it would be beneficial for Pitt to place greater importance on being ready for the NCAAs than advancing deep into the conference tournament, the Panthers say they don’t intend to let up.
“We want to win it,” guard Jermaine Dixon said. “People probably think it’s going to be easy for us if we lose, it would be easier for us going into the NCAA tournament. But we definitely want to win the Big East tournament.
“It’s March now. So it’s time to go undefeated. We’ve got to go undefeated now so we can win everything.”
The Panthers capped a 15-3 regular-season in conference play with a 70-60 win over then-No. 1 Connecticut on Saturday, finishing second in the Big East and earning a double-bye in the conference tournament.
They should be rested for this meeting with West Virginia (22-10), which finished seventh in the conference and got a bye through the first round before defeating Notre Dame 74-62 on Wednesday night.
Senior guard Alex Ruoff had 25 points with four 3-pointers and the Mountaineers outrebounded the Fighting Irish 52-32 in improving to 11-5 at MSG.
The Mountaineers lost both regular-season meetings with the Panthers, getting outplayed inside in a 79-67 home loss Jan. 25 and a 70-59 road defeat Feb. 9.
Pitt forward Sam Young, first on the team with 18.8 points per game, averaged 21.0 while shooting 61.5 percent (16-for-26) from the field against West Virginia.
“We got to man-up. They’re a physical team,” Ruoff said of Pitt. “We got a lot of foul trouble at their place and kind of opened the game up. We got to match their physical play. We made a few mistakes down the stretch, (and) that opened up the game at our place. Limit our mental mistakes and match their physical play.”
The Mountaineers are 3-8 against ranked opponents this season, including 2-7 against Top 25 teams from the Big East.
The Panthers, meanwhile, are 17-4 at Madison Square Garden since the 2002-03 season.
“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.”
The winner of this game will meet third-seed Connecticut or sixth-seed Syracuse in the semifinals on Friday.