by David Cassilo / @dcassilo
Pittsburgh started the college basketball regular season with an unhyped and rather unappealing game against Rhode Island. Its Big East opener, though, had everything its season opener lacked, as the Panthers took on UConn in a top-10 showdown to start the conference’s schedule.
The game pitted UConn and Kemba Walker, the leading candidate for National Player of the Year, against a staunch Pittsburgh defense and its raucous home crowd. However, while the game had many storylines and much anticipation, it played out like you would have expected before the regular season started and before UConn jumped up the polls — with a dominating Panther victory.
Pittsburgh controlled the game from the opening tip, eventually besting the Huskies 78-63. Walker still managed to put on a show, scoring 31 points and proving he is matchup-proof when it comes to opposing defenses, but it seemed like one vs. five at times as he was the only Husky to score in double figures.
On the other side, Jamie Dixon’s crew played exactly as expected when the season started. It used a balanced effort (four starters in double-figures), was paced by its talented guard Ashton Gibbs (21 points) and won the game on the defensive end, holding UConn to 31.7 percent from the field.
For Pittsburgh, it was exactly the type of game it needed to show why it was picked as the conference’s favorite.
Pitt built its program by playing tough defense and rebounding, but this version of the Panthers has the ability to defeat opponents in different ways. This was the third game in which they were outrebounded this season, and the Panthers managed to win two of those games. The defense, while still strong in comparison with other Big East teams, is not up to Pitt’s usual standards.
This team is doing it with a well-balanced offense that is averaging a whopping 20 assists. The Panthers also own the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference and rank among the most efficient offensive teams in the nation.
What doubt rose after Pittsburgh fell to Tennessee has now disappeared. While Syracuse fans might disagree, the Panthers showed that they are the best team in the Big East on Monday night and, just like was thought before the season, are Final Four contenders.