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Can Pitt claw through Big East?

Last season, the Pitt Panthers set a school record for overall wins (31) and regular-season Big East wins (15). They earned the school’s first No. 1 seed in the national polls ever as well as the first in the NCAA Tournament. Pitt advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1974 and was a miracle shot by Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds from getting to its first Final Four.

However, instead of building upon all that success, the Panthers expected to take a step back in 2009-2010 after losing four starters, led by DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, and Levance Fields. Yet if you look at the early Big East standings, there the Panthers are back atop the nation’s toughest basketball conference.

Sure, it’s early, but Pitt (13-2, 6-5-2 ATS) started much of this season without its two most experienced returning players, guards Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown. Dixon, the lone returning starter, missed the first eight games while recovering from offseason foot surgeries, while Brown was academically ineligible for the first semester.

Without those two, Pitt started 7-1, with the only loss coming to now No. 2 Texas. The Panthers lost Dixon’s first game back, at Madison Square Garden against Indiana, but the guard was nowhere near 100 percent in shape and played just 12 minutes in that one. Since the Hoosier game, Pitt hasn’t lost (Brown returned a few games after Dixon) or failed to cover.

And while Pitt’s final few non-conference opponents weren’t much, starting 3-0 in the Big East is something to brag about. After taking care of business against DePaul, the Panthers then handed Syracuse its first loss of the season – at the Orange’s place – and then won at Cincinnati. Dixon combined for 31 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in those two road wins, while Brown had his best game of the young season against the Bearcats with 17 points. Brown, Dixon and Ashton Gibbs – the reigning Big East Player of the Week who leads the team in scoring at 17.5 ppg – give Pitt as good as a backcourt as anyone in the conference.

"I think if you try to evaluate Pitt it is clear you have to look at the season the last four games because they are a different team, now that they have all their players," said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin to reporters, noting the Panthers have had Dixon and Brown back together for just that long.

Winning two road games on the Big East, no matter against what team, gives you a nice head start in the conference. But the truest test perhaps comes next Wednesday at Connecticut. While last year’s Panthers were a dominant interior bunch behind Blair, this group is more of a backcourt-oriented team. It’s tough for that kind of club to withstand the physicality of the Big East.

So is Pitt the conference favorite? No. But the Panthers remain good betting value as long as they keep being undervalued – and the Panthers certainly will be decent-sized dogs at UConn.

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