BOSTON -- Pittsburgh coach Ben Howland is thrilled that the Big East has four teams in the Sweet 16. Partly, because it's nice to see his conference earning some national credibility. But, more selfishly, because it multiplies the degree of difficulty of what his Panthers achieved before the NCAA Tournament tipped off.
"It reflects very well on this team," Howland said after his Panthers dismantled Indiana, 74-52, on Sunday in a Midwest second-round game. "Because we won the Big East regular season and the Big East tournament."
It's a pretty simple equation. If the Big East is the big dog in the Big Dance (and it appears to be, with its four tourney entries now 8-0), then being the best team in the Big East means big things. And after the way Pittsburgh played Sunday -- harassing, swarming and generally exhausting Indiana with a performance so blue-collar the Panthers should carry union cards -- there's plenty of reason to be high on Pitt.
"We played Kentucky this year, we played Illinois, we played some really good basketball teams," said Indiana coach Mike Davis, after Howland's boys put him through 40 agonizing minutes of what can only be dubbed Big East-brand basketball. "But we hadn't played a team like that all year."
Meanwhile, Big East squads play teams "like that" for three straight months, and it's paying off right now. A few hours after Pitt's victory here in Big East country, fellow conference member Syracuse overcame a 17-point, first-half deficit against Oklahoma State to become the final member of the flawless foursome. Notre Dame and Connecticut advanced on Saturday.
The centerpiece of the Panthers' effort was sinister defense, their trademark all season (and a Big East staple as well, with UConn, Pitt and Syracuse all in the nation's top seven in field-goal percentage defense). The Panthers limited the Hoosiers to 43 percent and the Orange, following suit, froze the Cowboys out to the tune of 35 percent.
But unlike Syracuse, which needed a ferocious rally to win, this was Pitt's day from the opening tip. By halftime, Pitt had already forced 10 of Indiana's eventual 16 turnovers and led 31-21.
Point guard Brandin Knight was the lynchpin, his five steals highlighting a 17-point, seven-assist day. Most of the game Knight played a hardwood version of free safety, loitering in the lane and streaking into the passing lanes before the Hoosiers even knew what was happening. Pittsburgh's defense gave Indiana so many different looks -- switching on screens, switching on cuts, doubling in the post, doubling behind the arc -- that the Hoosiers spent most of the game with a first-day-of-school look on their faces. Knight was flying to the ball with such fury that even his near-steals drew 'oohs' and 'aahs' from the FleetCenter crowd.
"What makes us efficient on defense is getting into the passing lanes," said Knight, Pitt's career steals and assists leader. "We just stuck to the defensive rules coach taught us."
On one stretch in the first half, Knight taught both Indiana freshmen starters a lesson, stealing a Bracey Wright pass in transition, draining a three, then swiping the ball from Marshall Strickland the next time down, falling to the floor and maintaining his dribble. Throughout the game, Knight kept the same look -- stone-faced, eyes narrowed, expression the same whether he was picking off a pass or listening to Howland in the timeout huddle. And if Knight looked unfazed, it's because he was.
"This is nothing special," Knight said after Pitt had reached the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. "We've been here before."
But last year, Pitt lost to upstart Kent State in the Sweet 16. This year, their next opponent, Marquette, will have its hands full with a senior-driven team whose experience is only surpassed by muscle and tenacity.
"If you're not strong with the basketball, they will take it from you," said Davis. "If you throw a bad pass, they will steal it."
While Knight's defensive effort was the rare type that actually showed up in the box score -- his five swipes ties a season-high -- Julius Page turned in a defensive effort that was even more crucial to the Panthers' win. Page locked down Indiana guard Tom Coverdale, holding the senior, whose 23 points had been so instrumental in the first-round win over Alabama, to just six points on two-of-seven shooting.
Most highlights of Page show him swinging from the rim, and he did get two dunks against Indiana (an alley-oop and a thunderous, backboard-slapping two-hander), but Page is just as electric on the other end of the floor. The 6-foot-3 junior used his edge in athleticism and quickness to stymie Coverdale all afternoon.
"He's probably the best defender I've faced in my whole career," said Coverdale. "He's a great anticipator. He sees what's happening before it happens. It's tough to get a shot off against him."
Coverdale was indeed helpless; after going 12-of-13 from the free-throw line against Alabama, he didn't draw a single shooting foul on Page.
So now a league that got the short end of the stick on Selection Sunday, with both Seton Hall and Boston College left out of the field, is proving a point. And the regular-season and conference tourney champs are leading the way.
"I'm not surprised that all of our teams are winning and undefeated (in the tournament)," Howland said. "It speaks to the fact that maybe we should have gotten another bid."
But, alas, only four Big East teams got into the tourney. That's how many still remain, and the Panthers are rooting for the other three to stay as long as they can.
"I hope all of us advance through the Sweet 16," Knight said, "and we have a Big East Final Four."
Like Howland, Knight's rooting interests are probably selfish at heart.
But, should the Final Four turn into a miniature Big East tournament in two weeks, given what happened in the first one a few weeks ago in Madison Square Garden, you've gotta like Pitt's chances in New Orleans.
Andy Latack is a writer for ESPN The Magazine and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.