PITTSBURGH — Back in October, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun didn’t like playing this game so early in the season. Especially in Pittsburgh. Or without another Big East game preceding it.
Of course, that’s back when UConn wasn’t considered to be among the Big East’s five best teams, much less a Top 5 team nationally. A dazzling start by the Huskies might make him more amenable now to playing such an important conference game before New Year’s Day.
No. 4 Connecticut and No. 6 Pittsburgh meet Monday night in the Big East’s first heavyweight matchup this season, one that occurs even before the schools’ football teams play their bowl games. The 8:30 p.m. EST tip-off creates a prime time matchup of teams that began the season with contrasting expectations.
Pitt was picked to win the Big East in the preseason coaches poll, while Connecticut was chosen 10th — a prediction that reflected the Huskies’ 7-11 league record last season.
No wonder Calhoun was testy was asked about seeing Pitt pop up on the schedule as the conference opener, rather than in the usual late-January to mid-February window.
Because Big East teams play an 18-game conference schedule, the traditional start to league play has been pushed up a week.
“I don’t think Connecticut should be playing Pitt on Dec. 27,” Calhoun said at the Big East preseason media day. “The preseason for us, as it is for (Pitt coach) Jamie Dixon is very important. We have six freshmen. We should have a preseason.”
UConn’s so-called preseason couldn’t have gone much better. Led by Division I scoring leader Kemba Walker (26.5 points per game), the Huskies (10-0) own victories over two teams that were in the Top 10 at the time, Michigan State and Kentucky.
“You look at our league and you’ve got to pick somebody ninth you got to pick somebody eighth, and you know it’s going to be a good team. You won’t be surprised if they’re in the NCAA tournament, or they end up being at the top of the conference,” Dixon said. “To underestimate a Jim Calhoun team, it’s pretty hard to do. Here they are back and where they usually are, and they’re good.’ ‘
Pittsburgh (12-1) has been nearly as good as predicted, except for an 83-76 loss to Tennessee. The Panthers haven’t played another ranked team, so they’re as curious as anyone to see how they match up against a team with a player as good as Walker.
Pitt has won the last three and four of five against UConn. The teams don’t meet again during the regular season.
“It’s always been a battle,” forward Gilbert Brown said. “If you look at the last two or three years, they’ve been close games and nail biters and we’ve been ranked in the Top 10. They’re exciting games. Coach Calhoun always has a good game plan for us and really tries to attack the boards, and tells his big guys to try to block every shot.”
Dixon considered the UConn game so important he kept his players on campus after they defeated American 61-46 on Wednesday. They didn’t break for Christmas, but kept practicing at the Petersen Events Center.
“It’s a grind,” guard Brad Wanamaker said. “We want to be home with our families but we’ve got something to do. This is the reason why we play basketball.”
Dixon knows how difficult it can be if teams scatter during the holidays, then try to get back what they had before the break with only one day’s work.
“We’ll be fully prepared and ready to go,” Dixon said. “I know it will be a nice kickoff to Big East Conference play. It’s pretty hard to get those two teams ranked like that, especially together in the first conference game.”