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Pitt braces for tough Big East opener

| Saturday, Dec. 25, 2010

The Big East opener is always special, but this season is like a late Christmas present.

No. 6 Pitt (12-1) will begin its conference play against No. 4 Connecticut (10-0) on Monday in one of the most highly anticipated Big East debuts in league history.

This marks only the second time Pitt will open against the rival Huskies — the other was 1996-97 — and will stake the winner to an early head start in a grueling 18-game schedule in a conference with five teams ranked in the top 10 in the nation.

"It will be a nice kickoff," said coach Jamie Dixon, who earned his 200th victory with Pitt's 61-45 win over American on Wednesday. "It's pretty hard to get those two teams ranked and playing together, especially in the first conference game of the year."

Pitt has opened Big East play against a ranked team 11 times, including an 80-78 loss to top-ranked Syracuse in a 1989 thriller at Civic Arena and a victory over No. 5 Notre Dame in '02 in the first-ever Big East game at Petersen Events Center.

But UConn-Pitt games always seem to have more at stake, settling Big East titles and NCAA top seeds in recent seasons.

"It's going to be a tough battle," senior forward Gilbert Brown said. "But we're definitely looking forward to it."

Pitt has won three in a row against Connecticut, which bolted to a surprising start after coach Jim Calhoun's youthful team was picked 10th in the Big East. Guard Kemba Walker, the nation's leading scorer at 26.5 points per game, said he is unable to accurately describe to the freshmen what to expect in league play.

"Words can't even explain what is going to happen," Walker told reporters in Hartford. "They have to be mentally tough. That's it."

Pitt will hold a practice on Christmas Day to prepare for its only regular-season meeting with Connecticut.

"It's a grind," guard Brad Wanamaker said. "Yeah, we want to be home with our families. But we've got something to do."

While the rest of the Big East teams open later in the week, the Pitt-UConn game got an early start because the Huskies lose two Saturdays - days typically used for Big East games — due to nonconference national TV games in January against Texas and Tennessee.

Dixon, for one, said he isn't surprised by UConn's undefeated start, which includes victories over Michigan State and Kentucky.

"To underestimate a Jim Calhoun team, that's pretty hard to do," he said. "Here they are, back where they usually are."

Additional Information:

Big-time opener

This is only the fifth time in 29 seasons a ranked Pitt team will open Big East play against a ranked opponent:

2009-10 : No. 4 Connecticut vs. No. 6 Pitt

2007-08 : No. 17 Villanova 64, No. 13 Pitt 63

2002-03 : No. 6 Pitt 72, No. 5 Notre Dame 55

1998-99 : No. 18 St. John's 73, No. 20 Pitt 52

1987-88 : No. 14 Georgetown 62, No. 2 Pitt 57

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