Pitt still throwing punches in Big East

PITTSBURGH -- The Legendary Blue Horizon, home to some of boxing’s richest history, sits just a few blocks north on Broad Street from Brad Wanamaker’s Roman Catholic high school.

So when the Philadelphia native was looking for a way to explain the Big East, and, better yet, to explain who wins the Big East, Wanamaker went with an analogy he and his Brotherly Love natives know well.

“In this conference, it’s not just about throwing the first punch,’’ the Pittsburgh senior said. “It’s about how you respond. You survive in this league. Survival of the fittest.’’

You remember Pittsburgh, right? The team picked to win the Big East in the preseason? The one on most everyone’s Final Four short list back in October?

The one that promptly fell off the radar after an inexplicable loss to a Tennessee team that used said victory to go on a losing rampage and further discredit Pitt for the loss?

Yes, well, the Panthers would like to offer a little bit of a memory jolt: they didn’t go anywhere.

And as the Big East gets churning into the meat of things, Pittsburgh has three things going for it: the Panthers are healthy, they are deep and they are talented, a simple formula that works like a Molotov cocktail in this Darwinian league.

With its 74-66 win over a depleted Syracuse team (the Orange were without leading scorer Kris Joseph, and going into the Oakland Zoo without your leading scorer is like going to Las Vegas with an empty wallet), Pittsburgh is 6-0 in the Big East for the first time in school history.

“Since the Tennessee game … we‘ve been on a mission to just prove to everybody and ourselves what type of team we are and what we’re capable of,’’ Gilbert Brown said. “I don’t think people necessarily forgot about us. They may have doubted us a little bit.’’

But the Panthers are out to do more than silence their critics. For all the success Pittsburgh has enjoyed over the past 10 years -- nine consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, a 263-66 record in the Big East, nine 20-win seasons in a row -- there is one glaring hole in the Panthers’ résumé .

Pitt has yet to cross the threshold to the Final Four Promised Land. The Panthers have been close -- a Scottie Reynolds coast-to-coast buzzer-beater close -- but they have yet to achieve the ultimate basketball measuring stick.

Is this team capable of doing it?

Dixon won’t bite on that, but he does offer this assessment, one that ought to frighten opponents:

“We’re improving,’’ he said. “We’re getting tougher. Confidence is part of toughness and we’re gaining confidence.’’

This game will only serve to up the needle on the confidence meter.

Pittsburgh dropped a hoops haymaker on the Orange to start, rolling to a stunning 19-0 lead in the first seven minutes.

That can happen against, say, DePaul.

It doesn't happen against the No. 3 team in the country, a team without a loss on its schedule.

Of course neither does what happened next: Syracuse, which missed its first 10 shots, sank its next five and peeled off a 17-0 run of its own.

A goose egg for one team followed by a goose egg for the other? Go figure.

“We just did not do anything well at the beginning,’’ Jim Boeheim said. “We regrouped. I thought we played well the rest of the first half once we got over that start. We made as good a comeback as you’re probably going to make.’’

Indeed the Orange leave Pittsburgh with little to hang their heads about. This is the place where top-5 teams come to die -- Pitt is 9-0 against top-5 opponents since the Zoo opened nine years ago -- and Syracuse would have been hard pressed even if it could have had Carmelo Anthony in uniform.

Relying on freshmen C.J. Fair (16) and James Southerland (8) to make up for Joseph’s points and experience will only help the Orange in the long run.

But like Wanamaker said, it’s not about throwing the first punch.

It’s about withstanding all of them.

The Panthers picked and prodded the Syracuse zone, letting Nasir Robinson destroy it from the inside out. He put himself in the heart of the zone, taking feeds from up top and then either passing back to his shooters or scoring himself.

Robinson finished with 21.

“Coach preached to me all week to get catches in the middle so that we could work out of that to our perimeter shooters,’’ said Robinson, who helped the Panthers shoot 40 percent from beyond the arc against a team that ranks in the top 10 in 3-point defense. “The key thing in zones is getting inside touches.’’

The only real disappointment in this game is that the two teams won’t meet again in the regular season with, presumably, Joseph in the lineup.

The unbalanced Big East schedule doesn’t offer up a rematch at the Carrier Dome.

If these two heavyweights are to meet again, it will have to be in New York, during the Big East tournament.

“I’d love to play them again,’’ Wanamaker said. “They’re a great team and playing at their place is like playing here. I’m sure people probably will say this has an asterisk because he didn’t play. Let them put an asterisk next to it. We don’t care. We’re used to people doubting us.’’

Sounds like a fighter.