--Spread check: Pittsburgh by 3.
--Jamie Dixon never wavered in his belief that this Pitt team was going to win and win big.
Jamie Dixon is one stubborn man.
Pitt's basketball coach lost four starters from his 31-5 team that was a basket away from making the Final Four last season. Among those leaving were two of the best players in school history, NBA draft picks DeJuan Blair and Sam Young. Yet Dixon insisted his Panthers could win even after they were picked to finish ninth in the brutal Big East.
For nearly a month, there was little to suggest Dixon should be so optimistic. A team that was obviously trying to find itself narrowly beat Wofford and Duquesne and lost to rebuilding Indiana.
Still, Dixon wouldn't budge. He expected his Panthers to play like the teams that averaged 28 victories over the previous four seasons, with no excuses.
"We've been winners, we've got players who've always been winners and we're going to be winners," Dixon said.
Here's the surprise: The No. 16 Panthers (14-2, 4-0 in Big East) are playing every bit as well as their coach expected. They're going into Saturday afternoon's game against Louisville (12-5, 3-1) on a seven-game winning streak that includes consecutive road victories over No. 5 Syracuse, Cincinnati and No. 15 Connecticut.
--The Peterson Events Center has been the toughest place in the Big East to play during the Dixon era...for everyone outside of Louisville. Not only are the Cards the only team to win there more than once, they're 2-0 against the Panthers in the Steel City.
The Petersen Events Center has been a tough venue for any visitor over the years, however. Pitt (14-2, 4-0 Big East) has won 92.5 percent of its home games since the building opened in 2002-03, the fifth-highest percentage in the country.
It's also won 30 in a row at home, tied for the second-longest streak in the nation, by an average of 17.9 points. That includes 12 straight in Big East play by 14.7 per game since Louisville (12-5, 3-1) visited on Feb. 24, 2008.
The Cardinals won 75-73 behind 18 points from Edgar Sosa, running their record in Pitt's new facility to 2-0. No other visitor has won there more than once.
"Pitt is playing the best basketball along with (No. 4) Villanova in the Big East and they present a number of problems," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Certainly we have a big mountain to climb."
While the Cardinals have fallen out of the AP poll after opening the season ranked 19th, the Panthers didn't get a single vote as recently as Dec. 28 but have turned into one of the nation's hottest teams.
"I know other people may look at us differently and where we're picked," coach Jamie Dixon said. "But I believe any team that commits to one another and commits to playing together can be as good as they want to be."
--One of the biggest keys to Pitt's surprisingly hot league start has been the play of Ashton Gibbs, who, after scoring just over four points per game a year ago as a freshman, is averaging 21.3 ppg over four Big East contests and hasn't scored any less than 19.
"After the first couple individual workouts, we knew," Gibbs said. "We knew we'd have to step up. We knew Levance, Sam and DeJuan weren't here anymore. Levance did a great job leading the team, but he helped prepare us guys to step up. They taught us a lot."
Gibbs' play helped Pitt deal with the early season absences of its two most experienced players. Senior guard Jermaine Dixon missed eight games due to a broken foot, while junior forward Gilbert Brown had to sit out the first 11 games of the season as a result of academic issues.
Gibbs' 17.5 points per game rank eighth in the Big East. He's third in the Big East with just over two 3-pointers per game. His scoring prowess isn't something new. It's not something he learned last summer either. Gibbs, a native of Scotch Plains, N.J., attended Seton Hall Prep. He broke the school's 34-year-old career scoring record, finishing his career with 1,882 points. He averaged 28.1 points per game in his senior year.
Even though he came off the bench as a freshman, Gibbs still led the Big East in 3-point field-goal accuracy last season, making 44 percent of his attempts. He's made 37.2 percent of his 3-pointers this season, but he also leads the Big East with a 93.8 free throw percentage.
--Doubting Jamie Dixon is unwise.
--Louisville/Pitt is part of what is a huge weekend in the Big East.
The Big East's four highest-ranked teams -- No. 4 Villanova, No. 5 Syracuse, No. 10 West Virginia and No. 11 Georgetown -- are meeting this weekend in a pair of games that will help shape the league race and offer a possible preview of the conference tournament semifinals. In hindsight, it's hilarious that this was projected as a "down" year for the league. Nothing down about it at all.
Let's do the Friday Look Ahead ...
Best game of the weekend:Most experts have concluded either Syracuse or West Virginia will win the Big East. Of course, Villanova will probably have something to say about that. But assuming the experts are correct, Saturday's game between the Orange and Mountaineers could decide the league champion. This is the lone regular-season meeting scheduled between Jim Boeheim and Bob Huggins.
--Pitt is the talk of the entire league right now.