October 26, 2006

Pittsburgh picked to win the Big East

NEW YORK -- Jamie Dixon didn't hesitate to say his current team would not be able to do what his recent Pittsburgh teams have done.

"We've been a program that every year has exceeded where we've been picked in the preseason poll and we can't do that now," Dixon said Wednesday when the Panthers were selected No. 1 by the Big East coaches for this season. "It's something that doesn't mean anything, but it's still a great thing for our program. It shows where we've come from and where we're at."

The Panthers return eight of the top 10 players from the team that went 25-8 last season, reached the championship game of the Big East tournament and appeared in the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight year.

Dixon is starting his fourth season at Pitt, and his 76-22 career record after three seasons is tied for fourth all-time.

The Big East had a record eight teams in the NCAA tournament last season and that number should at least be matched this season.

Pittsburgh was No. 1 on 10 of the 16 coaches' ballots. Georgetown was second with four first-place votes, while Syracuse, which won the conference tournament last season, and Marquette reach received one and were third and fourth, respectively.

"What makes this conference great is that it's always a different team that's making noise," Dixon said. "Everybody has had their run at the top and that's what different about this conference from the others and that's what makes it the best conference."

Georgetown made the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2001, with the Hoyas losing to eventual champion Florida in the round of 16. The expectations for national success are back at Georgetown.

"The players have shown the proper mentality to be in position to meet those expectations," third-year coach John Thompson III said. "I think our guys have handled it fine."

The Hoyas will have a familiar name back this season as Patrick Ewing Jr., the son of the center who led them to three Final Fours and a national championship in the 1980s, is eligible after transferring from Indiana.

Syracuse's run to the conference title last season as the No. 9 seed was led by senior guard Gerry McNamara, the hero in all four wins that came by a total of eight points.

"You hope coming into a new season that something like that has an effect on the players who are back," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who welcomes freshman forward Paul Harris, the preseason rookie of the year. "It's always hard to predict because this league is always so balanced. It takes a while to see how everybody plays in games."

Connecticut was picked fifth in the preseason poll but a new vote might see things differently.

The Huskies found out Tuesday night that 7-foot-3 freshman Hasheem Thabeet was declared eligible by the NCAA after questions about his transcripts from his high school in Tanzania were cleared up.

"He will do what a 7-foot-3, 265-pound athlete will do -- have an impact," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "This is conjecture on my part based upon a few years of experience, he will get in foul trouble, that's inevitable, and he will have an impact. He will be in the top one, two in having an impact, not in the Big East, in the country. He will, at times, make it very difficult to shoot layups. He has the ability to change games."

Louisville was sixth in the voting and was followed by Villanova, DePaul, St. John's, Providence, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Seton Hall and South Florida.

Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese doesn't think the eight bids the 16-team league got last season has to be the record for long.

"I don't think it's a ceiling number," Tranghese said. "Talking to the people who run the tournament and the people on the committee, they assured me there is no ceiling. We're never going to know until it happens but people said you couldn't get eight in and we did it last year."

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