Panthers looking to exit Big East in style

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PITTSBURGH – Like most college basketball programs, Pittsburgh has a different game day schedule depending on whether the Panthers are playing at home or on the road.


Except, that is, when the team travels to Madison Square Garden.


On those times, coach Jamie Dixon sticks to the itinerary typically used for games at the Petersen Events Center. It’s something Dixon started doing a few years ago to help ease any sense of anxiety his players might have in stepping onto the floor at the basketball mecca.


Oh, and to send a message that the Garden – as much as any road venue can be – is Pitt’s house too.


“Our mentality over the years has been to treat it like a second home,” Dixon said. “That’s why we schedule the games, the tournaments that we’re in. We get in every one possible. We’ve played almost 50 games there the last 10 years.”


A tradition that will continue even after the 17th-ranked Panthers (24-7) prepare to play in their final Big East tournament. Pitt is the fourth seed after finishing 12-6 in conference play and earned a double-bye to the quarterfinals on Thursday.


Even with a couple days to rest, the Panthers left for Manhattan on Monday afternoon. The extra time gives Dixon’s players a chance to get settled and some – such as senior guard and Brooklyn native Tray Woodall – to enjoy a family reunion of sorts. The same goes for Dixon, who often has more than a dozen extended family members sitting behind the bench for as long as his team sticks around.


Though Pitt will continue to play in early season games in New York, Dixon allows the last trip to one of college basketball’s marquee events is bittersweet. While the Panthers have been good in the Garden, the Garden has also been good to them.


Pitt is 30-15 there over the last 13 years, starting with a spirited run to the Big East championship game in 2001 that put the Panthers back on the map.


“I think it was really catapulted us going forward,” said Dixon, an assistant under Ben Howland at the time. “I think we’d won three games in Big East tournament history before that and we won three games that year and from that point on we started winning games in the regular season and since then we’ve had the best record in the conference.”


Pitt is the winningest team in the Big East over the last dozen years, going 141-63 in conference play and capturing a combined six Big East titles – four in the regular season and two in the tournament.


There’s nothing Dixon would love more than to make it seven before the Panthers trade the Big East for the ACC over the summer. Dixon has been diplomatic about the move since it was announced 18 months ago but acknowledges for all the competition that awaits next year early March will have a decidedly different feel.


The coach joked he doesn’t have “a lot of family in Greensboro (North Carolina),” typically the home of the ACC tournament.


Dixon was kidding. And he laughed when asked if he would consider kissing midcourt at the Garden should the Panthers capture the championship.


“You see me doing that?” Dixon said.


Probably not, and for all the comfy nostalgia that awaits in what amounts to the last stand – at least in its current incarnation – for the Big East this remains very much a business trip for the Panthers.


Pitt, which started the season 1-3 in league play, has won four straight. And the Panthers should be healthy. Woodall says he’s not concerned about a balky right knee that gave him problems in the second half of an 81-66 victory at DePaul on Saturday and freshman point guard James Robinson’s sprained wrist is fine. The same goes for Steven Adams’ sprained left ankle.


Dixon’s biggest issue may be too much rest. For all of Pitt’s success at the tournament, the Panthers have lost the last three times they earned a pass to the quarterfinals.


“I think the double-bye has affected us in the past, but we’ll be ready to go,” Woodall said.


A little momentum might be all it takes. The Big East is so wide open that the same Georgetown team Pitt destroyed by 28 points in January is the top overall seed.


“We beat (them) by 28 but they’re a different team and they’re playing a lot better,” Woodall said. “But I think we’re also playing a lot better. We’re starting to hit that stride the way we need to.


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