JAY WRIGHT FEELS 2011 PANTHERS BEST YET
The ESPN GameDay crew invades Villanova for a battle between the Wildcats and Pittsburgh at 9 p.m. on ESPN. Pittsburgh will try to break Villanova’s 46-game winning streak at The Pavilion. The Panthers are 22-19 against the Wildcats in BIG EAST regular-season games, including a 70-65 win last year at the Petersen Events Center.
The meeting prior to last season's Pitt win was their instant classic in Boston in March of 2009 with a spot in the Final Four at stake. The game ended famously with Scotty Reynolds going the length of the court in the final seconds to win it for Villanova in a game where both programs were deserving to be in the Final Four according to Jay Wright.
“What’s so impressive about them is the guys in this game learned from the group in 2009 that we played in the final eight," said the Villanova coach during Thursday's media conference call. "We said it back then and we still believe it now, that group was a Final Four team. Either one of us could have won that game."
The Wildcats are currently looking up at the Panthers in the BIG EAST standings. Entering the season as co-favorites in the league, Pitt is 10-1 in conference play and the Wildcats are three games behind at 7-4. Wright believes this version of the Panthers might be better than the group led by Levance Fields, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair in '09, high praise as the 2009 Pitt team might have been the best ever the Pittsburgh program has produced. The 2009 club earned the first No. 1 ranking and NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed in the program's history.
"I think this team might be better just because of the depth. Depth and they have a little bit more skill level overall," said Wright. That’s kind of hard to say because both of them were great teams. They’re just an outstanding team and I definitely think they’re Final Four caliber.”
That depth will certainly be tested as Pitt's leading scorer Ashton Gibbs is doubtful to play because of a MCL injury in his knee. Gibbs missed the Panthers' 71-66 win at West Virginia on Monday night. Sophomore Travon Woodall got the start in his place and scored 12 points and turned the ball over just once in 36 minutes. Woodall will certainly be challenged on Saturday night by Villanova's talented backcourt duo of Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns.
Fisher finished with 23 points, 10 assists and five steals in Villanova's 77-76 loss at Rutgers Wednesday night. The Wildcats will have to quickly put the memory of that game out of their mind as they let a late 13-point lead slip away in the loss.
“We had a tough loss [Wednesday] night but in the BIG EAST you’ve got to respond quickly,” said Wright Thursday. “The good news is we get to play again and try to get it out of our mind; the bad news is that it’s Pitt.”
Trailing Pittsburgh in the league standings by three games with seven conference games left makes catching the Panthers a tall order. The two teams will also meet on the regular season's last day March 6th in the Peterson Events Center. The Wildcats will likely have to win both games against the Panthers and get some help if they are to capture a BIG EAST regular season championship, a goal very important to the Villanova coach.
“I just really believe what you do in your conference, over 18 games, that really shows where you are as a program and as a team,” Wright said. “The regular season is very important. The team that wins it, I think, really is the best team.”
Even without Gibbs in the line-up, Wright is aware of the talent Pitt will still have on the floor.
"(Brad) Wanamaker is incredible, (Gilbert) Brown’s becoming incredible," said Wright. "I love (Gary) McGhee. You can argue that McGhee is as good as anybody they’ve had in that spot."
Time will tell if this Pitt team is able to eclipse the accomplishments of their 2009 version. One thing is for certain, Saturday night in the Pavilion should be one great college basketball atmosphere and hopefully a game that lives up to it's billing.
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