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Pitt men's basketball team hopes to hand Syracuse its 1st loss

| Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, 10:30 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Cameron Wright scores past Virginia Tech's Will Johnston in the second half Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, at Petersen Events Center.

Jamie Dixon called it Game No. 25 on Pitt's schedule.

Yet, for only the second time since Petersen Events Center opened in 2002, No. 25 Pitt (20-4, 8-3) will host the nation's No. 1 team when top-ranked Syracuse (23-0, 10-0) visits at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Even if the Panthers won't admit to this ACC game taking on greater importance, they won't deny there is excitement knowing they have a chance to spoil Syracuse's undefeated season and topple a top-ranked team for only the third time in school history.

“If you can't get excited and pumped up to play the No. 1 team in the country,” Pitt shooting guard Cameron Wright said, “then there's no point in even playing basketball, if you ask me.”

Prior to the opening of the Pete, Pitt was 0-12 in a five-decade span against the nation's top-ranked teams. That drought ended with the Panthers' 76-68 victory over No. 1 Connecticut on Feb. 16, 2009, at XL Center in Hartford. When Pitt beat the Huskies, 70-60, on March 7, it became the seventh school in NCAA Division I history to beat the nation's No. 1 team twice in the same season.

Pitt experienced both sides of the No. 1 ranking during that 2008-09 season — the Panthers ascended to the top spot in January and February — and Dixon was asked which brought more pressure.

“I don't look at it as pressure, either way,” Dixon said. “I think I'd rather be No. 1, if that can be an answer to a question. Either way, you want to be playing in a game whether you are No. 1 or playing against No. 1. That's why our guys come here. They want to be in that situation, to play against No. 1 or be No. 1. Generally, that's going to happen when you play in the Big East or, now, the ACC.”

Pitt is undefeated at the Pete against top-five teams (9-0), winning twice against Syracuse. It also has a better record against the top 10 (13-1) than against Nos. 11-25 (4-8).

Dixon attributes that, at least in part, to the rankings not necessarily reflecting the state of whether teams were playing their best basketball or had faced the tough part of their schedules.

Syracuse's Jim Boeheim has a simple explanation.

“You know why? Because they're good,” Boeheim said. “That's really hard to figure out. They won the most games in the Big East, if you recall, in the last 10 years. Teams are good at home. They're good at home. Not many people win at Duke, either. You know why? Because they're good.”

It's worth noting that Syracuse had the second-best record in the Big East in that same span. Which doesn't necessarily explain why the Orange are 1-6 at the Pete. Or why their lone victory, 49-46 in overtime Feb. 29, 2004, came as an unranked team against the No. 3 Panthers. (An unranked Pitt beat No. 6 Syracuse, 65-55, on Feb. 2, 2013).

“They've been very good and we've been very good, and that's why we've had a lot of matchups in conference tournaments, as well as the regular season,” said Dixon, whose team lost to Syracuse, 59-54, Jan. 11 at Carrier Dome. “We've just got to play well in this one and play our best.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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