PITTSBURGH -All those easily beatable teams Pitt played in November and December often caught up to the Panthers in March. Their NCAA tournament seeding didn't always seem comparable to the record they achieved.
Last season, the Panthers won their first 15 games and played in the Big East tournament championship game for the fifth time in six years, yet were seeded only fifth in their region. Some players suggested they might have had the same seeding even if they hadn't won three Big East tournament games in three days.
If the Panthers are seeded lower than expected in the 2007 tournament, and they certainly expect to appear in it, their schedule probably won't be the culprit.
The Panthers, in line to be a top 10 team when The Associated Press preseason poll is released, have made a habit of not straying far from campus until the Big East schedules kicks in during January. Last season, they played only one of their first 12 games outside Pittsburgh.
This season's schedule looks far more challenging, with road games against Wisconsin, Oklahoma State and Auburn before Christmas. They also have a made-for-TV game against Washington on Feb. 17, during the time of the year when they normally have long since stopped playing non-conference games.
Rather than playing a lightweight opponent at home to open the season, they will face Western Michigan at West Point in a game that will honor Pitt coach Jamie Dixon's late sister, former Army coach Maggie Dixon.
The Panthers also play at Buffalo on Dec. 9, giving them five games outside of Pittsburgh before their Big East schedule opens Jan. 4 at Syracuse - four more than last season. They won't play a home game from Dec. 7-22, a period during which they had four home games last season.
They also play two of their first three conference games on the road.
"When you throw in our Big East schedule, it probably will be up there, on paper, as the toughest schedule in the country," Dixon said.
Pitt looks to have the experience and talent to handle the schedule. The Panthers return seven of their top eight players from last season, missing only point guard Carl Krauser.
Aaron Gray's decision to return for his senior season and not leave early for the NBA is the main reason Pitt is getting so much preseason attention. The conference's most improved player last season, the 7-foot Gray averaged nearly 14 points and 11 rebounds on a 25-8 team after being Chris Taft's backup the previous two seasons.
Gray knows Pitt will be ranked highly, but said, "We're more concerned about where we'll be ranked at the end."
Krauser was Pitt's top scorer last season, averaging 15 points, and likely will be replaced by sophomore Levance Fields. Fields averaged nearly 7 points last season as a freshman and, at times, seemed to run the Pitt offense better than Krauser did.
Shooting guard Ronald Ramon also can play the point if needed. Ramon, a 6-1 junior, had offseason shoulder surgery but doesn't expect to be affected by it.
"Ronald can shoot so well from the perimeter, and I think that will open it up for me to penetrate or dump it inside," Fields said. "That will make us even more dangerous."
Pitt also expects a big season from 6-6 sophomore Sam Young, who averaged nearly 8 points and 4.5 rebounds as a freshman. He expects to start at small forward, with 6-9 senior Levon Kendall moving into the power forward spot.
"I think a lot of people are going to be impressed," Young said.