- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- The Big East race isn't over. It can't be, not two weeks into January. But the early projections from subjectively looking at the teams, talking to the coaches, and evaluating the results are in: Pitt is separating itself from the rest of the pack.
The Panthers are 4-0 in the Big East after a 74-69 victory over preseason projected nemesis Georgetown Saturday night at the Petersen Events Center. Pitt already has two conference road wins at Syracuse and DePaul, something that only DePaul and Syracuse can claim (although both of those teams own a road win at Rutgers, easily one of the worst teams in the league).
The Panthers play host to Connecticut Tuesday and then Marquette Sunday. If ever there were a time when Pitt could leave the Big East pack behind it is now.
"We're trying to give ourselves as much leeway as possible," Pitt senior Levon Kendall said. "We're trying to create separation."
"They are clearly the best team in the league," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. "After that [you can say] everyone else is right there together."
Look around the country. The only other high-major league where the argument can be made for one team above all the rest is the SEC, with Florida establishing itself as a definitive champ a few weeks into the conference season.
There isn't another high-major league where one team is the clear favorite to go forward and win the regular-season title. Wisconsin has the edge in the Big Ten but Ohio State's win at Illinois and its comeback on the Badgers certainly served notice that this should be a two-team race.
Ultimately, Arizona and UCLA will vie for the Pac-10 title.
Kansas did dispatch Oklahoma State easily, but the Jayhawks were nearly nipped in overtime at Iowa State and likely will have Texas A&M and possibly Texas to deal with down the stretch in the Big 12.
North Carolina was supposed to be the clear No. 1 in the ACC before it was blitzed (down 22) for a good chunk of its six-point loss at Virginia Tech Saturday. Now, UNC is in the thick of a conference race that arguably includes six teams (winless Duke still deserves consideration).
The reason Pitt is in this position? The Panthers are the most experienced and balanced team in the Big East. That may or may not equate to a No. 1 seed or a Final Four run. But if you look at the Big East, who has as complete a team as the Panthers?
Do they have size? Yes they do in big man Aaron Gray.
Do they have a playmaking point? No question they have one in Levance Fields.
Is there a consummate role player? His name is Levon Kendall and he can do just about everything as his nine-point, five-assist, two-turnover, two-block, two-steal night attests.
Is there a wing who can get up and down, run the break and give this team some speed? He goes by the name of Mike Cook, and he led the Panthers with 18 points, five boards and one turnover in 30 minutes.
Is there enough shooting off the bench? Well, Ronald Ramon comes off the bench and he made one of two shots from behind the arc, three of four overall and finished with a solid 10 points in 21 minutes.
What about an unselfish team? It's not even close. Pitt had 22 assists on 28 field goals, got to the free-throw line for 19 free throws and made 15, outrebonded Georgetown 23-18 (not too many boards when Pitt shoots 59.6 percent and Georgetown shoots 60.9 percent) and had only seven turnovers.
And what about the defense by Pitt, is it tight enough to win the league? Well, normally the Panthers hold teams below 50 percent. The Hoyas shattered that 59-game streak Saturday but still lost.
"There's no doubt that Gray is a lot more poised than last year," Thompson III said. "He went through a process of realizing his role on the team. He's really talented and can draw the ball in and when it's time he knows to kick it out to the guys. Cook adds a whole new dimension and they've got shooters in Ramon and [Antonio] Graves and [Keith] Benjamin.
"Whenever you make a mistake they take advantage and their experience shows up."
And the Panthers can go with a variety of looks. Gray said when Ramon and Kendall are in the game, then they are more set-oriented offensively and shoot the ball better. And then when Sam Young or Fields come into the game they can speed things up.
Look, they aren't perfect, but with Pitt coach Jamie Dixon's demeanor, his passion for this squad to perform and his desire to ensure they defend, there seems to be a flow to their games.
Sure, they got blown out at Wisconsin and were nipped in double overtime against Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City. But those were games in December, on the road, and not against Big East competition. For the purposes of a conference discussion, the Panthers seem to be one step ahead of everyone else.
"What you saw [Saturday] is our balance," Kendall said. "Everybody had their moment, everybody contributes throughout the game."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
It's only January but the Pitt Panthers have clearly established themselves as the team to beat in the Big East this season, writes Andy Katz.