Pittsburgh begins Big East redemption

MILWAUKEE -- If the story of the tournament thus far is the number of upsets on hand, the underlying story has been the way those upsets have disproportionately sunk Big East teams.

No. 11 Old Dominion outlasts No. 6 Notre Dame. No. 11 Washington tops No. 6 Marquette. No. 14 Ohio shocks No. 3 Georgetown. No. 15 Robert Morris takes No. 2 Villanova to overtime. Wednesday night, the Big East was the best conference in the country. Friday morning, that reputation was in tatters.

Big East die-hards can take some solace, then, that No. 3-seed Pittsburgh didn't catch the upset bug in their first-round matchup. Instead, the Panthers handily dispensed with an overmatched Oakland team, 89-66, at the Bradley Center Friday.

Predictably enough, the Panthers say they're not concerned about the rest of their conference -- even if they happened to notice the Big East's Thursday struggles.

"We watched the games," Pitt guard Jermaine Dixon said. "We are student-athletes. We like watching basketball. Yeah, the Big East lost some games, but that's not our main concern. We worry about what we have to do, and we worry about Oakland more than anything, taking it one game at a time. The Big East took some hits, but we're just going to go out there and do what we have to do."

Likewise, Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said he didn't use the upsets from yesterday to put the fear of the underdog into his team.

"Not really," Dixon said. "We didn't look at that. Maybe they looked at it that way. I mean, to me if you go that route, you're not giving respect to Oakland. Our whole focus was how good they were, what they've done in their conference, and how they dominated the tournament in the three games they played.

"I know you can go that route and scare them, but my thing is to speak to the strengths and talents of Oakland and make sure our guys know how good they are," Dixon said.

Sure, the Big East may not be entirely redeemed by a blowout win over a No. 14 seed from the Summit League. But it wasn't just the win; it was the way the Panthers won. Fending off a scrappy team in the early minutes, Pittsburgh opened a commanding lead late in the first half. There was never a chance of a comeback; Dixon's team took all the air, all of that what-if energy, out of the Bradley Center. There would be no upset Friday, at least not when Pitt was on the floor.

Most impressive, perhaps, was his team's balance. Pittsburgh had six players score in double digits. The Panthers didn't create or maintain their large lead through explosive flurries or individual brilliance. Instead, Pittsburgh slowly, methodically, and completely ground the Golden Grizzlies down.

"I liked the balanced scoring," Jamie Dixon said. "Once we were able to get going, we could find some guys for open shots, and things started rolling."

Defensively, the Panthers chose not to double-team Oakland center Keith Benson, who played all 40 minutes and scored 28 points. The upshot was that Oakland's shooters didn't get open looks outside, and it paid off -- Pitt held Oakland to 4-of-21 shooting from three, and no matter what Benson did, it wasn't enough to keep up with Pitt's balance on the offensive end. Note to the rest of the NCAA tournament: This is how No. 3 seeds are supposed to win.

The next task -- facing No. 6 seed Xavier and its talented shooting guard, Jordan Crawford -- will be much more difficult. For now, though, Big East partisans can breathe easy. Pittsburgh's dominating performance made sure of that.