By Abbey Way & Matt Popchock

PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — What a difference one calendar year has made for No. 24 Pitt, which opens Big East play against No. 8 Cincinnati Monday at noon at The Pete.

It was defeated 66-63 by the Bearcats on New Year’s Day, a loss that signaled the brief downfall of the program. Pitt would go on to drop eight consecutive conference contests and never fully recover, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Jamie Dixon.

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This year, however, the Panthers (12-1), who have won eight in a row out of conference, are out to write a much different script against Cincinnati, which forward Lamar Patterson has deemed still a tough test.

“They came to our home court and beat us, and we just want to revenge our home court, and to get that ‘W,'” he said of the Bearcats (12-1), who are coming off their first loss of the season to New Mexico.

“Their guards are averaging ten-plus, and they’re all older and experienced, and they just play so hard,” Patterson added. “We watched Cincinnati a couple times…and you can just see how hard they play, so we need to be just as intense as they are.”

Finding that intensity at Monday’s matchup should be nothing new to the Panthers, who have been picking up the pace at practice since their return from break.

“It’s more intense…the last couple practices were longer than usual, and I see coaches trying to pick guys up a lot more, and getting on guys a lot more,” guard Tray Woodall said. “Obviously we aren’t in non-conference play anymore, and it’s going to get a lot more physical, so we’re just trying to get guys prepared.”

Woodall also said that he expects to see more from their freshmen going into Big East play, especially Steven Adams. He thinks Adams will transition just fine, but he thinks it will come even easier for Adams’ fellow newcomer, guard James Robinson.

“The way he plays is so steady. It’s hard to speed him up, and I don’t think they can speed him up,” Woodall said. “I think he will definitely be prepared, and play his same style of game and should be fine.”

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One of the biggest challenges for Pitt will be stopping Cincinnati’s leading scorer, Sean Kilpatrick, who had 15 points against the Lobos, including four buckets beyond the arc.

Woodall, intimately familiar with Kilpatrick, expects to be guarding him in certain switch situations on defense.

“I’ve known Shawn for a while, and I can’t wait to play him again,” Woodall said. “He always could shoot and he’s got confidence.”

Dixon also emphasized rebounding at practice this week, as both teams have been able to control games by controlling the glass, but still have room to grow. Cincinnati has constantly outworked opponents at both ends of the floor, though the Bearcats sit second behind the Big East-leading Panthers in average rebounding margin.

But perhaps the more critical factor Monday, aside from having a healthy Woodall for this installment of the rivalry, will be how much Cincinnati values possessions. If they’re counting on this year’s Panther squad to beat itself like last year’s frequently did, they may be in for a rough afternoon.

Pitt leads the nation in offensive efficiency (1.242 points/possession), whereas UC ranks just inside the Division I top-50 and fifth in the Big East (1.059 points/possession). Furthermore, keeping with a theme Dixon has touched on repeatedly as fall has turned to winter, the Panthers lead the country with an assist-to-turnover ratio currently standing at 2.11.

“They are a very old, experienced team, well coached, play hard, and they rebound well. They know how they want to play, and play to their strengths,” he said.

“Now it’s time to play and play against good people and ranked people…now we’ve just got to come out and get off to a good start, and play well and stay healthy just like every other team.”

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Coverage begins at 11:00 A.M. Monday, as Vinnie Richichi and Julius Page host Panther Preview on your flagship home of Pitt men’s basketball, SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan.