Pitt transitioning from physical Big East

PITTSBURGH – The words Big East adorned the floor of the Petersen Events Center for the final time Sunday.

Fittingly, they were plastered in the center of the paint where Pittsburgh made a name for itself first under Ben Howland and now Jamie Dixon.

The Panthers still have plenty to play for this season with a possible double-bye in the Big East tournament still in play and an NCAA Tournament berth assured after a 73-64 victory in overtime over Villanova that pushed the Panthers’ record to 23-7 and 11-6 in the Big East.

But there was no denying the end of an era Sunday.

The Panthers and Wildcats combined for 47 fouls, and nothing summed up Pitt’s years under Dixon better than Villanova’s final possession of regulation.

Ryan Arcidiacono, who scored a game-high 23 points for the Wildcats, drove to the basket with less than 10 seconds to play. There was contact, enough so that Arcidiacono lost possession of the ball. No foul was called, but the ball tipped off a Pitt player so Villanova got it back under its basket with 3.3 seconds left.

The in-bounds pass turned into a scrum for the ball which Pitt won, and Villanova never got off a shot.

“[Arcidiacono] drew contact, but that’s just the Big East,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We accept that.”

Next year, it could be different.

The Big East has long been known for its physical play. Wright said it himself, when it comes down to it, the referees in the Big East usually let the teams get pretty physical.

In year’s past, the physical nature of the Big East has even been blamed for teams being worn out in the NCAA Tournament.

Under Dixon, the Panthers have had bruisers like DeJuan Blair and Gary McGhee lead teams to a berth as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Without 7-foot center Steven Adams, who turned his ankle in practice Saturday, Pitt turned to Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor to push the Wildcats around the paint.

Zanna finished with 14 points and 19 rebounds, and Taylor had seven points and six boards, but both players picked up three fouls and could have been whistled for a few more.

“In the Big East, it comes down to loose balls,” Dixon said. “Villanova, Marquette and us play as similar of a style as any three programs out there. We all play hard, play physical and we have good kids.”

It will be interesting to see if the Atlantic Coast Conference referees let Pitt and fellow Big East transfer Syracuse’s reputation impact a whistle here and there next season. Another possibility is that Dixon will be forced to recruit more finesse players, something hardly ever associated with the Pitt brand.

Pitt will have to host games against Duke’s precision shooting instead of battling it out in the paint night in and night out, but then again, perhaps the Panthers will impact the ACC more than the ACC will change Pitt.

“You wonder how it can get any better than this in playing in the best conference in the country,” Dixon said. “But our hopes and our plans are to make the ACC the best conference in the country. That’s why they came after us and Syracuse. They didn’t come after us to pull it down. They came after us to build it up.”

Michael Boytim can be reached at mboytim@altoonamirror.com or at 946-7521