BACK IN OCTOBER, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun didn't like playing this game so early in the season. Especially in Pittsburgh. Or without another Big East game preceding it.

Of course, that was when UConn wasn't considered to be among the Big East's five best teams, much less a Top 5 team nationally. A dazzling start by the Huskies might make him more amenable to playing such an important conference game before New Year's Day.

No. 4 Connecticut and No. 6 Pittsburgh meet tonight in the Big East's first heavyweight matchup this season, one that occurs even before the schools' football teams play their bowl games. The 8:30 tipoff creates a prime-time matchup of teams that began the season with contrasting expectations.

Pitt was picked to win the Big East in the preseason coaches' poll, while Connecticut was chosen 10th, which reflected the Huskies' 7-11 league record last season.

No wonder Calhoun was testy was asked about seeing Pitt on the schedule as the conference opener.

"I don't think Connecticut should be playing Pitt on Dec. 27," Calhoun said at the Big East preseason media day. "The preseason for us, as it is for [Pitt coach] Jamie Dixon, is very important. We have six freshmen. We should have a preseason."

UConn's so-called preseason couldn't have gone much better. Led by Division I scoring leader Kemba Walker (26.5 points per game), the Huskies (10-0) own victories over two teams that were in the Top 10 at the time, Michigan State and Kentucky.

"You look at our league and you've got to pick somebody ninth, you got to pick somebody eighth, and you know it's going to be a good team. You won't be surprised if they're in the NCAA Tournament, or they end up being at the top of the conference," Dixon said. "To underestimate a Jim Calhoun team, it's pretty hard to do. Here they are back and where they usually are; they're good."

Pittsburgh (12-1) has been nearly as good as predicted, except for an 83-76 loss to Tennessee. The Panthers haven't played another ranked team, so they're curious to see how they match up against a team with a player as good as Walker. Pitt has won the last three and four of five against UConn. The teams don't meet again during the regular season.

"It's always been a battle," Pitt forward Gilbert Brown said. "If you look at the last 2 or 3 years, they've been close games and nail biters and we've been ranked in the Top 10. They're exciting games. Coach Calhoun always has a good game plan for us and really tries to attack the boards, and tells his big guys to try to block every shot."

Dixon considered the UConn game so important he kept his players on campus after they defeated American, 61-46, last Wednesday, without a Christmas break.

"It's a grind," said Brad Wanamaker, a Roman Catholic grad. "We want to be home with our families, but we've got something to do. This is the reason why we play basketball."

"We'll be fully prepared and ready to go," Dixon said. "I know it will be a nice kickoff to Big East Conference play. It's pretty hard to get those two teams ranked like that, especially together in the first conference game."

In a game yesterday:

* At Newark, N.J., Justin Harper scored 24 points, 18 on three-pointers, to lead Richmond to a 69-61 victory over Seton Hall. The victory was the second straight road win for the Spiders (10-3), who won at UNC-Greensboro on Wednesday. The Pirates (6-6) lost for the second straight time at home to an Atlantic 10 opponent.

Kevin Anderson added 14 points, 10 of which came in the final 10 minutes. He sealed the victory with a clutch three-pointer with a minute left and added a driving basket with 26 seconds left.

Jeff Robinson led Seton Hall with 17.