PITTSBURGH – Forgive Jamie Dixon if he’s not in the mood to wax nostalgic.
The Pittsburgh coach is well aware the 23rd-ranked Panthers are playing their final Big East home game on Sunday against cross-state rival Villanova. After 31 seasons, a handful of conference titles – and one famously shattered backboard courtesy of Jerome Lane – Pitt is heading to the ACC this summer.
Just don’t expect any bittersweet goodbyes. There’s too much at stake for Pitt (22-7, 10-6), which likely needs to win its final two games to earn a lengthy bye in the conference tournament.
The Panthers have won two straight, including a 20-point romp over South Florida on Wednesday in which Dixon allowed his players a little more freedom offensively. The result was a fluid second half in which Pitt used a 16-0 run to pull away.
“We were moving hard, moving quicker,” Dixon said.
Consider it the current motto of a program eager to accelerate into the postseason and eventually beyond. The end of a 53-year rivalry with the Wildcats is just part of the cost of doing business.
Neither Dixon or Villanova coach Jay Wright have any plans to continue the series, though Wright – unlike Dixon – can feel the twinge of tradition giving way to economic survival.
“Usually it’s a big game when we’re playing out there,” Wright said. “It’s always a national TV game. I really am going to miss that. I have great respect for Jamie. We’ve had battles.”
None more famous than the showdown in the East regional final of the 2009 NCAA tournament, when Scottie Reynolds’ layup with 0.5 seconds remaining lifted the Wildcats to the Final Four.
Villanova (18-11, 9-7) isn’t quite at that level this year, though the Wildcats can make significant inroads to an NCAA bid with a victory.
“I have confidence in this team,” Wright said. “They’re capable of winning. We’ve proven that. Do we have the consistency and maturity yet to finish this season off? I really don’t know.”
Villanova hasn’t been the same since Reynolds’ shot, and in some ways neither have the Panthers.
Nearly four years after such a close call with college basketball’s biggest stage, the game still resonates with Pitt fifth-year senior Tray Woodall. The point guard – a freshman at the time whose season was cut short due to injury – remembers watching Reynolds race down the floor for the game-tying bucket. Yet he also remembers the lessons taught by Pitt teammates like Sam Young, DeJuan Blair and Levance Fields about what it takes to be a leader.
“Seeing those guys get to the Elite Eight,” Woodall said. “That’s something I’ll always carry with me.”
Now Woodall is hoping to carry the Panthers back to the upper echelon of the Big East. He has been a rock for a young team trying to bounce back from a horrific 2011-12 season. Sunday’s game will be the last time he will be introduced to the Oakland Zoo at the Petersen Events Center. He will be flanked by members of his extended family, who will finally get a chance to see Woodall play on his home floor.
“It’s a great feeling,” Woodall said. “I know I’m giving my nieces a better look on life, knowing if they work hard they can be in a great situation like myself.”
Like his roommate and good friend, center Dante Taylor will be making one last appearance at the Pete. Unlike Woodall, Taylor’s career has been pockmarked by what might have been. He came to the Panthers as a McDonald’s All-American, a five-star recruit whose stay at Pitt wasn’t expected to be a long one.
Four years later, Taylor is a role player behind freshman center Steven Adams. One, though, who can still show flashes of brilliance. Taylor had 12 points and 10 rebounds against South Florida, the first time he scored in double figures in nearly three months.
It wasn’t quite the career Taylor expected, but Dixon has pointed to Taylor’s selflessness as an important symbol on a team that uses a 10-man rotation.
Dixon has hinted Taylor may make his first start of the season against the Wildcats, but Taylor insists it’s not an issue. He knows he’ll play. He also knows he’ll try to drink in the atmosphere, one that will be a little bit different when Pitt trades the Big East for the ACC.
“It’s definitely going to be emotional,” Taylor said.