Pitt's Wanamaker eager to take on Villanova

Posted: February 11, 2011

PITTSBURGH IS the only Big East team that's won 10 conference games in each of the last 10 seasons. In that stretch, the league has had six different teams get to the Final Four seven times. The Panthers weren't one of them. In fact, they've made it to the Elite Eight only once.

And Villanova Nation can tell you how that turned out.

Now the Panthers (22-2, 10-1), who haven't made it past the second round of the only tournament that anyone remembers in 4 of the past 6 years, are ranked fourth and appear to be, as projected in the preseason, the best-equipped squad to make a postseason statement from the country's most rugged neighborhood.

"Our expectations are just as high as everyone else's," said senior guard Brad Wanamaker, who played his high school ball at Roman Catholic. "A lot of us got to the Final Eight as sophomores. We really thought we were going to make it that year. But it just didn't work out. We think we have another strong group, that's just as capable of getting there. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as you don't let it weigh on you. We still have a long way to go yet before March.

"The leaders just have to do a good job of not letting anybody lose sight of what's next. Keep a level head, and worry about the task that's right in front of you. If you do that, and play the way we know we can, then all that stuff can take care of itself. But you can't be afraid of setting your goals high. That's why you come to a program like this, to achieve great things."

Tomorrow night at the Pavilion, the Panthers get No. 9 Villanova (19-5, 7-4), which is coming off a brutal last-second loss at Rutgers. But the Wildcats have won 46 straight on their campus. ESPN's "College GameDay" will be there. The teams will meet again on the other side of the commonwealth in the regular-season finale.

Pitt supposedly will be without leading scorer Ashton Gibbs (knee). Yet it won without him on Monday, at West Virginia.

Wanamaker, who almost went to Temple, was recruited by Jay Wright. This is his sixth game against the Wildcats. He's 2-3, 0-2 in Philly and 0-1 on the Main Line.

"Oh, man, do I enjoy it," said Wanamaker, who's averaging 12.3 points, second-best on the team, to go with five assists and five rebounds in 29 minutes per. "It's going to be an unbelievable atmosphere. You want to be part of something like that. And my whole family gets to come watch me. Villanova's the team I rooted for growing up. It's the team my family still roots for, except when they're playing us. It's always fun to go against the hometown team. It'll be loud. We'll try to quiet them down.

"My freshman year, that was the first time I'd played there. Even though we didn't come out with the win, it was a great experience for a kid from Philly. For me to go back as a senior, for the last time, I really want to make it special. I've got 15 people coming, but the list may grow. I'm trying to see if any of my teammates have tickets they're not using."

The Panthers take their cue from coach Jamie Dixon, who hasn't had many stars. What they mostly do is defend, rebound and take care of the rock. It isn't always pretty, but it's usually quite effective. This contingent is no different.

"You know coming in what's going to be asked of you," said Wanamaker, who struggled a little his first two seasons while trying to figure out his niche. "When you think of Pitt basketball, you always think of toughness, outworking other people. We feed off bringing that kind of energy to the court. We all want to compete. You should see our practices. [Dixon] demands a lot out of us. And that carries over to the games. There's a strong legacy there. And the harder you work every day, the less you're going to hear it from him.

"We have a lot of trust in each other. Anybody on this team could be a starter. If we stick together, it doesn't matter. And we have a better chance to win. That's who we are. If you win, there's enough credit to go around for everybody anyway."

Three players score in double figures. Six others play 12 minutes or more. They shoot 47.5 percent from the field, 39.3 from the arc. The one weakness is at the foul line (66.7).

"It's kind of hard to say, but I think this team might be better [than 2 years ago], because of the depth," Wright noted. "And they have a little bit more skill level overall."

The measuring stick will be the Madness, just because. Maybe they're finally due.

"A lot of people wanted me to stay local," Wanamaker recalled. "They wanted to cheer for me for another 4 years. But I think coming to Pitt was the best decision for me. It helped me grow up, not only as a player but as a person. I've been through a lot, played with a lot of good people. I learned so much.

"So I wouldn't change anything."

Except, obviously, the end of that 2009 East Regional final. Another chance could be a month away.

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