ORLANDO — Jamie Dixon knows what this looks like.
His No. 9 seed Pittsburgh team plays No. 1 Florida today in the third round of the NCAA Tournament South Region in the underdog role.
But the Pittsburgh team that lost four of six in late February has won six of its past eight. And Dixon believes his Panthers are better than most observers think.
"We feel like we're getting better at what we want to be," Dixon said Friday. "It's been a long time coming, but it's with some young guys — six new guys, four returning guys. You had to understand that it was going to take some time to get there. We're getting there. I don't think we're there right yet, but hopefully it's (today)."
Florida is keenly aware of the challenge ahead with Pitt. The Panthers are extremely physical and led the ACC in rebounding margin at plus-6.3.
"I definitely think it's going to be a physical game," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "They've gotten a lot of productivity out of their frontcourt. It's interesting because both teams trap the low post. They do a really good job trapping the low post. We try to do the same thing. So how effective each team's frontcourt is scoring is going to be interesting because of the way both teams play post defense in the frontcourt."
Guards Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin both struggled for the Gators in Thursday's opening win over Albany, which could make the matchup between 6-foot-9 centers Patric Young and Pitt's Talib Zanna even more pivotal.
"I'm just going to go out there and just play my game," said Zanna, who averages 13.1 points and 8.6 rebounds. "I know he's a physical guy, he plays dirty, so that's how we play. It's going to be a good battle down there. I don't mean like a dirty player, I just mean he's physical, get after it, and he's a hustle player."
Young, who had a double double against Albany with 10 points and 10 rebounds, said he welcomes the challenge.
"Because we're both very similar players, it's going to be a battle," he said. "We're going to go out there and just try and wear their frontcourt out because they have a lot of depth, a lot of good talented guys, especially him."
Pitt enters with a plus-1.71 turnover margin and led the ACC in assists (15.62). The Gators said they'll try to force turnovers if possible, but more important they want to wear Pitt down with their press.
"I think like us, they do a good job of priding themselves on defense, and they really work hard on that end," Wilbekin said. "There will be a lot of defense played."
Albany coach Will Brown has played against both the Gators and Panthers. In his opinion, this one is too close to call.
"I think that game, if Pitt handles Florida's pressure and it becomes a halfcourt game, that could be the most physical game you'll see in the NCAA Tournament this year," Brown said. "I think whoever can score the ball easiest in that game is going to win. And I think Florida's pressure allows them to get some cheap turnovers, which will translate into some easy baskets. … This is going to be a great game, I think, a lot closer than people think."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]