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Pitt seeks Madison Square Garden foe

| Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wanted: A high-major basketball power to play Pitt at Madison Square Garden in mid-December on national television.

All interest parties should contact coach Jamie Dixon or the Pitt athletic department.

Pitt has a deal with ESPN to play Dec. 17 in New York City, provided the Panthers secure an appealing opponent.

But the phone isn't ringing.

Although Dixon earlier this month said he had reached out to "every school in the country," as of this week, Pitt still hadn't found any takers, increasing the chance the game may not materialize.

"They have been trying for months," Big East associate commissioner Tom Odjakjian said. "They are looking for a big name, of course. If they got a big name, ESPN would jump in."

Pitt's 2008-09 schedule won't be released until in late August or early September, so there certainly still is time. But will it happen?

"On July 16th," Odjakjian said, "it's not going to be easy."

The game would seem like an attractive proposal. But a combination of factors -- Pitt's late start in the search, precious few open dates by other schools and even final exams -- has conspired to keep the Panthers still looking with the start of the 2008-09 season fewer than four months away.

"You'd think there would be a lot (of interested schools)," Odjakjian said. "It's not that they don't want to; it's just the timing and the particular date."

Dixon said two possible candidates were Alabama or Memphis, who played Pitt at the Garden in recent years. Both schools were unavailable. Alabama already had a scheduled game Dec. 17, and Memphis was booked to play near that date.

Dixon also mentioned Stanford, which became a possibility when the Top of the World Tournament was canceled two weeks ago. Stanford's Dan Shell, who handles scheduling for the Pac-10 school, couldn't be reached for comment.

Pitt got a late start finding an opponent because the Panthers originally considered playing in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament Nov. 20-21 at Madison Square Garden. That would have ended the need to schedule a game at the Garden, something Dixon strives to do each season.

Instead, the Panthers opted for the Legends Classic on Nov. 28-29 in Newark, N.J.

Now, with the St. John's game at Petersen Events Center this season, the Panthers are looking at only the second time in the past six years without a regular-season game at the Garden.

Odjakjian said it's unlikely Pitt would play a smaller school at the Garden, even if it's a New York-area school. The gate wouldn't justify such a matchup at a 19,000-seat arena.

"It's certainly up to the Garden if a lesser opponent would be acceptable," Odjakjian said. "If the game is not going to draw a lot of people, they aren't going to bother."

Pitt is a formidable opponent at the Garden, where it has won 22 of its past 31 games, including the overtime victory against Duke last December and four games in four nights to win the Big East Tournament title in March.

That might be another reason why no one is returning Dixon's calls.

"Maybe," Odjakjian said, "some people aren't ready for that challenge."

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