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Panthers off to blistering start


January 17, 2011
By Mike Boytim,

Most of the talk around water coolers in the area today will center around the Steelers beating the Baltimore Ravens and how Pittsburgh will match up against the New York Jets Sunday.

Though plenty of defense will be on display in that game, don't forget about another Pittsburgh team known for its defense over the past decade, the Pitt Panthers men's basketball team.

Pitt hosts 18-0 Syracuse tonight at the Petersen Events Center at 7:30 on ESPN. The Panthers are 17-1 and have gotten off to a 5-0 start in Big East play, but thanks to several flameouts in the NCAA Tournament and one near miss two years ago against Villanova, they aren't getting a ton of attention.

Here is a stat that just might: 8-0. That would be Pitt's record against top-5 teams in the Oakland Zoo, including a 78-63 victory over then No. 4 Connecticut Dec. 27.

Pitt will have a chance to add to that tonight. Not only are the Panthers 144-11 all-time in the Petersen Events Center and 4-0 against the Orange since losing the Big East Championship game to them in 2006, Syracuse will be playing without its top scorer, Kris Joseph.

The players who filled in for Joseph Saturday against Cincinnati combined for 20 points off the bench, but putting one of those valuable reserves in the starting lineup will hurt the Orange's depth, something Pittsburgh has more of this season than in quite some time.

Pitt's starting lineup of Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, Nasir Robinson and Gary McGhee are all experienced, established players, but it doesn't stop there.

Freshman Talib Zanna started the first 13 games of the season in place of Robinson, Dante Taylor is improving as a sophomore and Travon Woodall is averaging seven points off the bench after starting several games last season.

Unlike Pitt teams of the past, this squad can light up the scoreboard. The Panthers have scored 97 twice, 95 once and scored at least 79 in eight other games. Leading Marquette Jan. 8 by nine with 3:23 left, Pitt got a defensive rebound. Instead of holding the ball and relying on its defense to close out the game like so many years past, Woodall sprinted down the court and made a layup to extend the lead.

That's not saying this team can't play defense anymore.

In its last two games, Pitt held Georgetown to 57 points in D.C., and Seton Hall managed just 18 points against the Panthers in the first half Saturday.

Pittsburgh would be 6-0 in Big East play for the first time ever with a victory against Syracuse, and it likely wouldn't stop there.

Pitt travels to DePaul, hosts Notre Dame, travels to Rutgers and hosts Cincinnati before a tough two-game stretch on the road at West Virginia and Villanova.

Though coach Jamie Dixon would never let the players look that far ahead, there's a great chance, even with the toughness of the Big East, that Pitt could be 10-0 in the Big East and No. 1 in the nation heading into its game Feb. 7 at West Virginia if it wins tonight.

The last time Pitt reached No. 1 in the rankings, it came within a Scottie Reynolds basket of the Final Four.

With Reynolds no longer at Villanova, perhaps this is the year that nothing will stand in the Panthers' way.

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