Not only did No. 5 Pitt kick off the 2010-11 Division-I basketball season Monday night, but it did so in unique fashion.

The Panthers (1-0) took on the challenge of playing Rhode Island (0-1), a team Pitt coach Jamie Dixon believes will finish the season in the top 40 in Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). Few highly ranked teams take on such an opponent in a season opener, but Dixon and his squad believe that playing a team like the Rams early on can only help as the year progresses.

“We’re up for the challenge,” guard Ashton Gibbs said. Gibbs scored 22 points in the Panthers’ 83-75 victory. “I think that’s the good thing about Pitt — tough players. Coach Dixon recruits that, he recruits tough-minded players.

“We played against great players each and every day in high school and now, carrying everything over to college, we’re not gonna back down to anything. Now it’s just about going out, playing our hardest and executing every game.”

Pitt and Rhode Island played in one of four games Monday night to tip off the regular season, all part of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. None had as competent of opponents as Pitt — No. 13 Illinois played UC Irvine, Texas played Navy and Maryland played Seattle.

The Illini, Longhorns and Terrapins all rolled to double digit wins.

“It will be a quality win at the end of the year,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “There’s not a lot of top 40 RPI teams around. Half of the teams in our conference are those teams.”

The Panthers won’t get a break, either. After a home game tonight against Illinois-Chicago and another Saturday against North Florida, the Panthers travel to Madison Square Garden in New York for games against Maryland and then either Illinois or Texas to complete the tournament.

Pitt will host mid-major programs with recent success as well — Robert Morris, Penn, Duquesne — along with Tennessee on Dec. 11 as well at Consol Energy Center. Not long after that the Big East Schedule begins.

For a team aspiring to win a national championship, Rhode Island was an early start to preparing for the NCAA Tournament.

“There’s a reason why teams don’t wanna play them, but there’s also a reason why we’re always top three in RPI over the last nine, 10 years,” Dixon said.
It’s because we play teams like this. We’re the ones that would agree to play them and we got the game we thought we’d get out of it.”

Pitt trailed the Rams by eight points with 1:31 to play in the first half, but utilized a 10-2 run before halftime to take a 1-point lead, 37-36. Both teams traded leads to start the second half, but the Panthers wore down Rhode Island as the second half progressed and made enough foul shots at the end to come away with the win.

“You could say it maybe felt like the tournament,” guard Brad Wannamaker said. “It was a pretty intense game, especially against a really good team early on in the season. We don’t usually play a team of this caliber early on, so I think it’s going to help us in the long run.”

Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog

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