Pittsburgh and Connecticut have met in three Big East tournament championship games this decade.
It isn't March yet and the venue isn't Madison Square Garden, but the stakes are high once again.The No. 18 Panthers and red-hot Huskies meet Saturday in Hartford with a spot in the Top 25 the likely reward for the winner, while the loser will fall back into the middle of the Big East pack.Pittsburgh (17-4, 5-3) and UConn (15-5, 5-3) have split 10 meetings since the start of the 2001-02 season, with the Huskies taking two of three conference tournament championship games between the schools.Nine of the 10 games have been decided by 10 or fewer points."I remember when they started calling it a rivalry, and I think (UConn) coach (Jim) Calhoun did at first," said Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon after his team beat the Huskies last season. "It was a statement for our program -- eight years ago, it wasn't considered a rivalry. Now it's a game we look forward to, because we always seem to be battling for Big East championships."Pittsburgh enters this game ranked, just as it has in every game in the rivalry over the past seven seasons. However, a loss would likely drop the Panthers out of the AP Top 25.Meanwhile, if the Huskies -- currently two spots behind No. 25 Baylor -- can win their fifth straight game, they'll almost certainly enter the rankings for the first time this season.Pittsburgh has adjusted to playing without injured guards Mike Cook and Levance Fields, going 6-3 in their absence. The Panthers rebounded from a 13-point home loss to Rutgers by beating Villanova 69-57 on Wednesday."We're right there as far as the conference goes," Dixon said. "Through all that it's pretty remarkable and I'm proud of our guys. I think it's a place no one thought we would be at this point."Forward Sam Young -- the Big East's fourth-leading scorer with 18.1 points per game -- has kept the Panthers' offense going, averaging 18.9 points and 6.4 rebounds since Cook and Fields went down.The other key for Pitt has been freshman DeJuan Blair, who's averaging 11.7 points and 9.5 boards -- third-best in the league.Blair, though, will have his hands full with UConn's front line. The Huskies have led the nation in blocked shots for the past six seasons and are No. 1 again in 2007-08, with 8.7 per game. They're also second in rebounding, pulling down an average of 43.4 boards.UConn is led up front by junior forward Jeff Adrien, who's averaging 14.1 points and 9.2 rebounds, and 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet, who scores 11.1 points, grabs 7.2 rebounds and blocks 3.8 shots per game.Adrien had 12 points and 10 rebounds -- his 10th double-double of the season -- in the Huskies' 69-67 victory at home over Louisville on Monday, their fourth straight win in a streak that has included victories over a pair of ranked teams, then-No. 7 Indiana and then-No. 13 Marquette.UConn had 40 rebounds to the Cardinals' 29."We dominated the paint and dominated the boards and that's something we're capable of doing every game," Adrien said. "Earlier this year we were doing that, but now we're starting to do it like breathing, basically."The Huskies' backcourt is in limbo. Jerome Dyson, who's tied for the team lead with 14.3 ppg, and Doug Wiggins were suspended Jan. 25 after campus police ticketed the 20-year-old sophomores for possession of alcohol by a minor.Wiggins was reinstated by Calhoun on Friday, but it's not known if he will play against Pittsburgh. Dyson remains suspended indefinitely.