Preview: No. 8 Notre Dame @ Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH – In winning its last two trips to the Petersen Events Center, the Irish had to win close, low-scoring battles, claiming a 51-42 verdict two years ago and a 56-51 victory in 2011. The struggling Panthers hope to halt a three-game losing streak by creating some madness in “The Pete” where they’ve lost 15 of their last 31 games.

• Game 23: No. 8/8 Notre Dame (20-2, 8-1) @ Pittsburgh (13-8, 3-5)
• Place: Petersen Events Center; Pittsburgh, Pa.
• Time: 12:00 p.m. ET
• TV: ACCN
• Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference
• Location: Pittsburgh, Pa.
• Nickname: Panthers
• 2013-14 record: 26-10 (11-7; 5th in ACC)

Pittsburgh Head Coach
Jamie Dixon (12th year at Pittsburgh) -- Career record: 301-104 in 12th year at Pittsburgh.

Dixon, 49, won at least 22 games in each of his first 11 seasons with the Panthers, including 31 games in his first season (2003-04) when he took them to the first of two Sweet 16 appearances. He also led Pittsburgh to the Elite Eight in 2008-09. Pittsburgh went 28-6, 15-3 in 2010-11 to win the Big East. Dixon won 216 of the first 276 games he coached the Panthers, including a sparkling 98-38 record in conference play.

Pittsburgh Scouting Report
The Panthers (13-8, 3-5) are lacking offensive firepower and aren’t the rebounding wrecking crew that they once were under Jamie Dixon as they enter today’s clash with Notre Dame on a three-game losing streak, including a 70-67 overtime loss Tuesday at Virginia Tech, which claimed its first conference victory in seven tries.

It’s a young Panther squad with just one senior – 6-foot-5, 205-pound Cameron Wright – in the regular rotation. Wright missed the first seven games of the season while recovering from a broken left foot. He’s averaging 9.2 points per game and has been a spark at times with a 20-point, 7-of-11 shooting performance against Georgia Tech, and an 18-point, 8-of-11 shooting effort over Clemson. Wright does, however, struggle at the free-throw line (.550, 22-of-40).

Leading Pittsburgh statistically is impressive sophomore Michael Young, a 6-foot-9, 220-pounder who is scoring and rebounding at 13.2 and 7.8 clips respectively. His scoring high for the season in conference play is just 16 points, but he is consistent –shooting 50.7 percent from the field – and has grabbed 78 offensive rebounds.

Another sophomore – 6-foot-7, 220-pound Jamel Artis -- averages 11.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, although he’s upped his scoring figure to 17.8 points per game over the last five after tossing in 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting against Duke and 20 points against Virginia Tech. Artis is a versatile player with a 39.1 percent success ratio from three (18-of-46) and an 85.2 percent mark from the free-throw line (52-of-61).

Junior James Robinson, a 6-foot-3, 198-pound point guard, is the third Panther in double-figure scoring at 10.1 points per game. He leads Pittsburgh in assists at 4.7 while grabbing 3.5 rebounds. He also is a great shooter from the free-throw line (84.4, 65-of-77).

But Robinson struggles from beyond the arc, which is a trait of the Panthers. He is just 16-of-57 from three-point range (28.1 percent) on a team that is converting a mere 32.5 percent. Robinson was 0-of-11 from beyond the arc in a recent five-game stretch.

The top three-point shooter is 6-foot-6, 213-pound sophomore Chris Jones, who has made 25-of-72 (34.7 percent) while averaging 9.0 points per game. Josh Newkirk is a 6-foot-1 sophomore who averages 7.0 points per game, although he has scored in double figures just once in the last 13 games and has missed nine of his last 10 three-point attempts.

Brey on the Pittsburgh challenge
“We would have every reason to be a little flat and a little under-energized given what we had to do against N.C. State and what we did (Wednesday against Duke). I told the team, ‘If you get the one in Pittsburgh, I’ll start to refer to you as having special qualities.’ Human nature would say you’re not going to be very good. I’m very interested to see how we are at high noon on Saturday.”

Pittsburgh-Notre Dame Preview
Since winning the 2010-11 Big East title, Pittsburgh and head coach Jamie Dixon have struggled to find the form that led him and the Panthers to a 216-60 overall mark in his first eight seasons as a head coach, including a brilliant 98-38 conference mark. Pittsburgh won double-digit conference games in each of his first eight seasons.

Then came a clunker of a season in 2011-12 when the Panthers went 5-13 in the Big East, and now as a member of the ACC, one can’t help but wonder how the Pittsburgh talent/style of play translates to its new conference. Still, Pittsburgh finished fifth in its first year in the ACC and made the NCAA tournament for the 11th time in 12 years under Dixon.

This remains a dangerous team, especially coming off three-straight losses at Duke (79-65), at home vs. Louisville (80-68) and at Virginia Tech (70-67 in OT). The Panthers lost by 18 at North Carolina State, and their only three victories have come at Boston College, Florida State and Georgia Tech, who are a combined 5-18 in ACC play.

Petersen Events Center used to be a place where visiting teams were swallowed up. In Sports Illustrated’s 2006 poll of Big East players, “The Pete” was voted the most difficult place to play in the conference. But in the last 31 games at home, the Panthers have lost 15 times. They’re 2-2 so far this year with home records of 4-5 in 2013-14, 6-3 in 2012-13, 4-5 in 2011-12.

Of the three losses in 2012-13, one of them came against Notre Dame, 51-42. In 2010-11, when Pittsburgh won the Big East, its only conference loss at home came at the hands of the Irish, 56-51.

Played on a neutral court, Notre Dame likely would win 9.5 times out of 10. Played at The Pete, the Irish still should have the upper hand. The question is not who’s better, but rather, what does Notre Dame have left in its tank after an emotional road victory against North Carolina State and the raucous 77-73 victory over Duke Wednesday night. They’ll be greeted either by a frustrated Panther squad, or one bound and determined to save their season with a packed house on hand to help stir the pot.

If the Irish are physically and mentally prepared to play, the Panthers don’t shoot well enough to knock off Notre Dame. They are a woeful 32.5 percent from three-point range, and their ability to score is about 14 points per game south of the Irish.

If, however, Michael Young and Jamel Artis – a pair of talented, physical sophomores – are able to gain inroads in the paint, which can happen against the Irish at any time, Notre Dame could get knocked off its pedestal as the darlings of college basketball.

Somewhere in between likely lies reality in a game that could turn into the tug-of-war that Notre Dame’s last two trips to the Petersen Events Center became. Look for this game to be a bit lower scoring than the Irish have been accustomed to this season. If shooting percentages remain true to form, Notre Dame should pull this one out.

But this looks like a scratch-and-claw affair with the Panthers using Notre Dame’s deliberate offensive approach as the formula for success that carried the Irish to victory each of the past two trips to The Pete.

• Pointspread: Notre Dame by 5½ 
• Irish Illustrated Prediction: Notre Dame 70, Pittsburgh 67
• Season record: 15-7 straight up; 7-7 vs. points


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