Pittsburgh and Connecticut have developed perhaps the Big East’s best rivalry over the past decade, but after battling it out as top-five teams twice last season, both sides had plenty of holes to fill - particularly the Panthers.
After a rocky start, Pittsburgh seems to have found its footing.
Two impressive conference road wins have No. 16 Pittsburgh looking like a Big East contender, and a third straight victory in its rivalry with the 15th-ranked Huskies on Wednesday night in Hartford would cement that status.
Meeting in three consecutive conference tournament title games from 2002-2004 ignited a rivalry between UConn and Pittsburgh (13-2, 3-0), and that feud hasn’t dissipated for the league’s two winningest programs over the past 10 years.
The Huskies (11-4, 2-2) claimed two of those three championship games but the Panthers have won three of the past four in the series, with last season’s accomplishments their most impressive. UConn entered both meetings as the nation’s top-ranked team, but Pitt won twice after never toppling a No. 1 opponent in school history.
UConn lost its top three scorers from 2008-09 but returned Jerome Dyson, who missed much of last season with a torn ACL and is now the conference’s third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game.
The Panthers’ trio of Sam Young, DeJuan Blair and Levance Fields all departed as well, but the emergence of Ashton Gibbs and the returns of Gilbert Brown (academic issues) and Jermaine Dixon (broken foot) have them again looking like a Big East contender after some uninspiring non-conference play.
“We’ve been doubted this whole season, from the start,” said Gibbs, who’s averaging 22.0 points in three league games.
Gibbs had 24 points and Dixon 21 in an 82-72 road upset of then-No. 5 Syracuse on Jan. 2, then 19 points from Gibbs and 17 from Brown sparked a 74-71 victory at Cincinnati on Jan. 4.
“It’s just getting better,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “I think they’re improving. I think there’s a real understanding that we’re not going to be the same team in January that we were in November.”
Dyson and Stanley Robinson (17.1 ppg) have made up for most of the scoring lost from A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet, but the Huskies’ rebounding differential is down from last season, when they were third in the nation.
They’ve also been prone to some defensive lapses, none greater than Saturday’s at Georgetown.
UConn led by as many as 19 in the first half and took a 15-point lead to the locker room, but Austin Freeman scored 28 in the second half as the Hoyas rallied for a 72-69 victory that left Jim Calhoun fuming.
“It’s the most heartbreaking loss this year. It’s not even close,” Calhoun said, recalling a three-point loss to Kentucky and a two-point defeat at Cincinnati. “We took our 20 minutes of work, threw it away and said, ‘OK, now let’s play an even game.’”
Dyson and Kemba Walker committed 10 of the Huskies’ 15 turnovers at Georgetown, and that’s been an issue in all four of their losses. UConn is 9-0 when it turns the ball over 13 times or fewer.
The Huskies are among the nation’s top teams in field-goal percentage defense (37.2), and holding Pitt to a similar number will likely be critical. The Panthers are 12-0 when they shoot better than 40.0 percent and 10-0 when Gibbs makes at least a third of his shots.