... It's gonna be a big game tonight either way...

Villanova fall short in Big East battle with Pitt
Friday, February 11, 2011
By Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The best laid plans of the Big East sometimes go awry.

Pitt and Villanova were expected to battle it out for the Big East Conference's regular-season championship. The Panthers were selected as the top team in a preseason poll of the league's head coaches, and the Wildcats were picked to finish second.

The conference pitted the Panthers and Wildcats against one another twice -- both high-profile national television games -- in hopes of providing some late-season drama. The second contest is the regular-season finale at the Petersen Events Center.

[IMGL]http://i56.tinypic.com/11252mb.jpg[/IMGL]That game still could decide the conference championship, but the Wildcats have some work to do for that to happen as they currently in fourth in the conference, a full three games behind first-place Pitt.

Villanova coach Jay Wright believes his team can catch Pitt and win at least a share of the regular-season title. But the No. 9 Wildcats likely will have to win all seven remaining games, including the two against No. 4 Pitt, and hope for the Panthers to falter in at least one other game.

"You have to concentrate on one game at a time, but we always feel like where we finish in the regular season speaks to how good of a team we are," Wright said Thursday morning. "I don't look at the Big East tournament or the NCAA tournament. I know other people do. I just believe what you do over the course of a season in your conference really shows where you are. The regular season is very important. The team that wins it really is the best team."

Villanova and Pitt have had some memorable recent games. The Panthers won the only meeting last season, 70-65,at the Petersen Events Center.

Villanova won the two games the previous season, including an NCAA tournament game on a buzzer-beater by Scottie Reynolds. The victory sent the Wildcats to the Final Four for the first time since 1985 and denied the Panthers their first trip since 1941.

"That [Pitt] group was a Final Four team," Wright said. "We said it at the time. Either one of us could have won that game. This team might be better because of the depth and a little more skill level overall. [Brad] Wanamaker is incredible. Gilbert Brown is becoming incredible. And I love [Gary] McGhee. You can argue McGhee is as good as anyone they've had in that spot. I definitely think they're a Final Four-caliber team."

Wright is not the first opposing to coach to suggest that this team might be better than the 2008-09 squad. That team was led by DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields. Following a game at the Petersen Events Center last month, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said: "This is one of the best, if not the best, Pitt team we have ever faced."

Senior guard Brad Wanamaker, a sophomore reserve on the Elite Eight team, did not disagree with Wright and Boeheim.

"We had a big three with Sam, DeJuan and Levance," Wanamaker said. "With this team, we have a strong seven, eight or nine. I think that's the difference between this team and that team. We have more depth with this team and a better rotation where guys can come in and step up."

Wanamaker is one of six current players who experienced the devastation of losing to Villanova that fateful night in Boston with the Final Four on the line.

"Us six guys have something against Villanova because we feel like they stole something from us," he said. "Anytime we play against them, it will be personal."

The 2008-09 team finished the Big East schedule 15-3 and in a tie for second. This team can do something that has not been done at Pitt in the past seven years -- win a Big East regular-season championship.

The Panthers can take a big step toward making that goal come to fruition with a victory Saturday night.

[HIGH-LIGHT]NOTES[/HIGH-LIGHT] -- [HIGH-LIGHT]Pitt junior guard Ashton Gibbs likely will be out again with a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Gibbs did not practice Thursday. He is officially listed as doubtful. "I don't anticipate him playing Saturday," coach Jamie Dixon said.[/HIGH-LIGHT] ... Villanova senior Corey Stokes, the team's second-leading scorer, is struggling with a nagging turf toe injury. Wright said the training staff is evaluating whether the injury needs rest or if it is something he will have to play through. ... Khem Birch, a 6-foot-8, 210-pound power forward at Notre Dame Prep who will be enrolling at Pitt this summer, was named to the McDonald's All-American team Thursday. Birch is the sixth McDonald's All-American in school history and the second in the past three years. The others are Dante Taylor, Brian Shorter, Bobby Martin, Jerome Lane and Charles Smith.