Quick response over next three games critical for Panthers
In its next three games, trouble could mean bubble for Pitt.
The upcoming schedule isn’t a roll call of Big East powers, but the seemingly innocuous three-game stretch could go a long way toward defining the season.
The No. 22 Panthers, who host Cincinnati (10-3, 0-0 Big East) at 7 p.m. today, will get back on track for an 11th consecutive NCAA Tournament berth or perhaps find themselves in unfamiliar territory this March.
After playing the short-handed Bearcats, Pitt (11-3, 0-1), which is trying to avoid its first 0-2 Big East start since 1999-2000, travels to preseason doormat DePaul on Thursday and hosts Rutgers on Jan. 11.
“The Big East is so deep and so good, you don’t want to come out 0-2 and get the other teams trying to come at you,” junior center Dante Taylor said. “They want to come out and beat us. Every team is going to come out like that. We’ve just got to come out harder and stronger, and we should be OK.”
Pitt, coming off losses to Wagner and at Notre Dame, has dropped three in a row only twice in coach Jamie Dixon’s eight-plus seasons. After this negotiable three-game stretch, Pitt heads into a brutal run with games at No. 10 Marquette and No. 1 Syracuse in a three-day span, followed by No. 4 Louisville at home.
Picking up three wins in the next 10 days is crucial because of the importance of getting at least nine in the 18-game conference schedule. In the past 10 years, 86 teams finished with a .500 or better record in the Big East, and 68 of them (79.2 percent) reached the NCAA Tournament.
By contrast, 62 Big East teams have finished with a losing conference record in that span, and only one of them — Syracuse in 2006 — reached the tournament. And the Orange had to win the Big East Tournament to advance.
“We just want to win games,” sophomore forward Lamar Patterson said. “The past two losses were games we felt we should have won. We didn’t execute the right way, and we got a little out of ourselves.”
Cincinnati has won five in a row since its fight-marred loss to rival Xavier on Dec. 10 yielded six-game suspensions for 6-foot-9, 260-pound preseason all-Big East senior forward Yancy Gates along with 6-10 junior center Cheikh Mbodj and 6-9 freshman forward Octavius Ellis. This is the final game of their suspension.
According to RealTimeRPI.com predictions, Pitt is on pace for a 20-11 regular-season finish and a 9-9 mark in the Big East. The Panthers have one victory against a team in the RPI top 100 (No. 95 Oklahoma State).
“A lot of things remain to be seen,” Dixon said. “There is a still a lot of time for teams to become what they hope to be.”
Panthers game day
7 p.m. today, Petersen Events Center
TV/radio: Root Sports/KDKA-FM (93.7), Pitt Radio Network
Records: Cincinnati 10-3, 0-0 Big East; Pitt 11-3, 0-1
Series: Pitt leads, 8-7
Of note: No. 22 Pitt is 7-1 against Cincinnati since the Bearcats joined the Big East in 2005-06.
Players to watch
Cincinnati: Cashmere Wright, Jr., G — Averages 11.4 points and is seventh in the Big East in assists (5.1).
Pitt: Lamar Patterson, So., F — Ranks second in the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.67).