Pittsburgh has established itself as a cut above the rest of the Big East, and needs only two wins in its last three games to wrap up its first regular-season conference championship in seven years.
No Big East team can say it’s won at Louisville, however.
The fourth-ranked Panthers can take a big step toward the league title Sunday afternoon by handing the No. 16 Cardinals their first conference loss at the new KFC Yum! Center.
Pitt (25-3, 13-2) won its first six league road games before falling 60-59 to St. John’s at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 19, a loss that seemed to be lingering early Thursday in its return home against rival West Virginia.
The Panthers found out before the game they’d lost freshman big man Talib Zanna to a broken finger, and trailed 31-30 at halftime. But coach Jamie Dixon’s team was at its best after the break, outscoring the Mountaineers 41-27 while cruising to a 71-58 victory.
“There wasn’t any panic at the half,” Dixon said. “We got off to a slow start and we didn’t really play well early, but we responded. We didn’t make any huge adjustments, it was more about just keeping it simple and getting back to what we’ve been doing in practice.”
The win kept the Panthers two games ahead of second-place Notre Dame in the loss column, meaning Pitt needs only two wins - or a win and a Fighting Irish loss - to clinch its first regular-season Big East title since 2003-04.
Louisville (21-7, 10-5) has little chance to earn the conference’s No. 1 seed, but it’s in excellent position to earn one of four double-byes heading into the Big East tournament.
Though the Panthers played excellent defense Thursday - holding the Mountaineers to 33.3 percent shooting - the Cardinals were more suffocating Tuesday at Rutgers. Louisville held the Scarlet Knights to a woeful 29.5 percent (13 of 44) and forced 18 turnovers in a 55-37 win.
Four days earlier, it held then-No. 13 Connecticut to 37.0 percent in a 71-58 victory.
“We’re getting better defensively and that’s the key,” coach Rick Pitino said. “In the last two games we got teams to take bad shots and we came down with the rebound. That’s the biggest jump we’ve made.”
Forcing the Panthers to take bad shots won’t be nearly as easy. Pitt shoots 46.8 percent overall and 39.7 percent from 3-point range in conference play. Both are league bests, and leading scoring Ashton Gibbs shoots a remarkable 48.8 percent from beyond the arc in Big East games.
It’s not the Panthers’ long-range success that has Louisville guard Mike Marra worried, though.
“What people don’t notice about Pitt, they run their sets so well they can get layups whenever they want them,” Marra said.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, take a Big East-high 24.1 3-pointers per game, and if they’re not hot from outside they could be in trouble. Pitt’s plus-11.3 rebound margin is second-best in the nation, while Louisville is a minus-1.5 on the boards over its last eight games.
With Gary McGhee, Nasir Robinson and others looking to grab any errant shots, the Cardinals could use an accurate effort from leading scorer Preston Knowles. The senior is shooting just 29.2 percent in his last nine games.
Knowles had 21 points on 8 of 12 shooting in an 82-77 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Jan. 16, 2010. Robinson had 26 points and Brad Wanamaker 20 for the Panthers.
Knowles had 10 points in Pitt’s last visit to Louisville, a 69-63 Cardinals win on Jan. 17, 2009, that knocked the Panthers from No. 1.