Canes Right Back At It

After spending several weeks away from home engulfed in the middle of a strenuous road trip , a return to South Florida would probably be welcomed with open arms by the University of Miami men's basketball team.

What a perfect spot for John Salmons to recover completely from the flu; for Marcus Barnes to get his shooting hand all heeled up; and for the rest of the team to catch a breather.

Surprise, surprise.

The Hurricanes (15-2, 2-2) won't have a lot of time to mend their aches and pains, instead they will encounter another Big East beast at the Miami Arena tomorrow night in the form of the Pittsburgh Panthers (15-2, 3-1). The 7:30 p.m. contest will be UM's conference home opener The Hurricanes split four games in their first conference competition of the season, starting and finishing the trip with victories. UM defeated Georgetown and Virginia Tech, while falling to St. John's and Connecticut.

"There's no time to waste in the Big East," said UM head coach Perry Clark earlier this week. "We have to get some rest, recover our legs, and be prepared because Pitt offers a new challenge." An unexpected one.

Despite a 56-53 loss to Notre Dame on their home floor, Pittsburgh is one of college basketball's surprise teams and a potential major player in the Big East conference. The Panthers, second in the west division of the Big East, were ranked as high as No. 23 by the Associated Press last week.

The Panthers entered the Notre Dame contest on a 10-game winning streak, which included victories over two Big Ten schools (Ohio State, Penn State) and three conference opponents (Boston College, Rutgers and St. John's).

When the Panthers reached the Big East title game before losing to Boston College a year ago, the consensus was they would have a tough time repeating the feat this season thanks to the graduation of Ricardo Greer and a depleted roster.

But a relentless defense and the strong play of junior guard Brandin Knight has the Panthers sitting near the top of the conference standings.

Knight, who averaged 8.8 points and 7.3 assists in the Big East Tournament last year, anchors the Panthers offense with 16.0 points per game and has a conference-high 104 assists on the season. In addition to getting his teammates involved, The 6-0, 183-pounder is tied for first in the Big East with 49 made three-pointers.

Knight, 10th in field goal percentage in the conference, is also averaging 2.88 steals a game and gives the Panthers a solid rebounding presence for a player of his size, with 4.8 boards a contest.

Whenever Knight isn't looking to score, he's keeping his eyes on several other options on offense.

Junior forward Donatas Zavackas is second on the team with 11.8 points per game and is an adequate rebounder (5.1 rpg). Zavackas is shooting at a 43 percent clip (46-106). Sophomore Jaron Brown, Knight's backcourt mate, leads the team with a 57 percent shooting percentage from the floor and is pouring in 10.4 points a game.

Julius Page (9.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg) isn't afraid to launch'em up from long-range. Page is 17-77 from three-point range.

The Panthers have stymied the opposition with their defense allowing 55.7 points per game and a 37.1 field goal percentage, both tops in the Big East conference. The Panthers have managed to hold 10 opponents in the 50's and surrendered 63 points apiece to South Florida and Duquesne.

Pitt has only given over 70 points in a game once all season and that was to Boston College with Troy Bell.

"We've been really consistent on the defensive side of the ball," said Panthers head coach Ben Howland. "But Miami presents us with a world of problems. We'll have to plat our best game." Something will likely give.

The Hurricanes, whose five starters average in double figure points, are sixth in the Big East in scoring offense (74.4), could be hard-pressed to put the ball through the net against the Panthers. Despite winning their last outing, Miami has been outrebounded in three consecutive games and have had problems getting the ball inside. Teams have applied zone defenses to perfection against Miami, relegating them to the perimeter.

The Hurricanes are 8-0 on their home floor.

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