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Preview: No. 24 Pittsburgh @ Notre Dame

High-scoring Panthers – ranked in the AP poll for the first time in nearly two years – bring 2-0 ACC mark into Purcell Pavilion following ND’s whitewashing of Boston College.

• Game 15: Pittsburgh (13-1, 2-0) @ Notre Dame (10-4, 1-1)
Date: Jan. 9, 2016
• Place: Purcell Pavilion; Notre Dame, Ind.
Time: 4:00 p.m. ET
TV: RSN/ESPN3
Opponent Nickname: Panthers
Head coach: Jamie Dixon (13th year at Pittsburgh; 320-112)
Conference: Atlantic Coast
Location: Pittsburgh, Pa.
2014-15 record: 19-15 (8-10 in ACC)

By Pittsburgh/Jamie Dixon standards, the Panthers have been way down, landing just two NCAA tournament appearances in four seasons with a 9th and 13th-place finish in conference play mixed in.

Now in their third year in the ACC, the Panthers (13-1, 2-0) are back with a more aggressive offense as well as the nation’s top free-throw shooting team (.790). The style is different from Dixon’s glory days in the Big East when Pittsburgh won a couple of conference titles and finished second three times in an eight-year span.

The Panthers are doing it with overwhelming numbers, averaging 85.3 points per game with six out of 14 games in the 90s. Pittsburgh’s only loss came at home on Dec. 1 against another resurgent squad – No. 11 Purdue – as the Boilermakers converted 11-of-28 three-pointers en route to a 72-59 victory at the Petersen Events Center.

But that’s been the exception to the rule, including Pittsburgh’s first two ACC games against Syracuse (72-61) and Georgia Tech (89-84). Now, Dixon takes his high-flying Panthers on the road, where they finished a mere 3-6 in 2014-15.

An incredible 12 players log at least nine minutes for Pittsburgh with none more than 27 minutes. The backbone of the team up front is 6-foot-9, 235-pound Michael Young, who paces the Panthers at 16.9 points per game. He also leads the team in rebounding at 6.9 per game, including 35 on the offensive end.

Veteran point guard James Robinson ties it together in the backcourt with 6-foot-7, 220-pound Jamel Artis surging from 47 percent shooting a year ago to a 55 percent conversion rate this season. Tag-teaming up front with Young is 6-foot-8, 225-pound junior Sheldon Jeter, who averages 8.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.

Pittsburgh’s unusual depth has been aided by three graduate-student transfers: 6-foot-4 Sterling Smith (Coppin State), 6-foot-9, 245-pound Rafael Maia (Brown) and 6-foot-9, 235-pound Alonzo Nelson-Ododa (Richmond).

CAN DEFENSE BE TRUSTED?

It’s already gone under the category of “defensive resurgence.”

After allowing Virginia to shoot 57.1 percent from the field in an 11-point loss at Virginia to open ACC play on Jan. 2 – including 24-of-38 on two-point field-goal attempts (63.1 percent) – Notre Dame responded with a suffocating performance against Boston College Thursday night in an 82-54 victory over the Eagles in Conte Forum.

Boston College missed 33-of-50 field-goal attempts (34.0 percent) as the Irish completely took the home team out of its offensive flow in what was Notre Dame’s most once-sided victory in 38 games of ACC play.

It’s a whole new ball game against the Panthers, who want to push the pace in order to facilitate easy baskets on the other end, where Pittsburgh is shooting 49.6 percent from the field. Even the three-point efficiency is noteworthy (92-of-250, .368), which can be an Achilles Heel for the Panthers away from The Pete.

Can the Irish carry over that performance/effort against Boston College into a game against a much more talented, deep, efficient offense? If we’re talking about Notre Dame’s quality defensive performance after Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh, there’s legitimacy to the claim. Otherwise, the Irish simply beat up on a bad Boston College team.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

Zach Auguste notched his ninth double-double in 14 games Thursday night at Boston College when he scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Notre Dame’s runaway victory.

It was a much-needed performance – albeit a bit spotty with four of Notre Dame’s 14 turnovers – after Auguste scored one point and grabbed two rebounds with three turnovers in 22 minutes of action against Virginia. Auguste has had at least one turnover in each of Notre Dame’s 14 games.

Auguste has the dubious distinction of leading the Irish in turnovers from the post position with 42 of the team’s 143 (29.3 percent).

He’ll need another strong performance against a long, strong, deep front line that is the antithesis of Notre Dame’s threadbare unit that Mike Brey would like to expand, but still generally relies on Auguste and 6-foot-5 powerhouse Bonzie Colson to do most of the inside work. V.J. Beachem chips in with 4.9 rebounds per game – mostly on the defensive end – where the Irish will need plenty of help against the Panthers.

This will be a game where Auguste will have to contribute 30-plus minutes of strong play as the Panthers offer a parade of bigger bodies up front. Six-foot-five Bonzie Colson also likely will need a double-digit effort on the backboards.

Rebounding will be a key stat as the Panthers, on paper, appear to be capable of playing ping-pong up front against Notre Dame’s limited crew. Look for Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia, who combine for 8.3 rebounds per game (5.2 by Jackson), to sink into the lane to assist on the backboards.

BEACHEM BOUNCES BACK

Notre Dame’s loss at Virginia was a bad day for most of the Irish players, not just Auguste. Junior swingman V.J. Beachem – who had made at least two three-pointers in the first 11 games of the season – was 0-for-3 against the Cavaliers after converting 37 of his first 78 attempts (47.4 percent) on the season.

Beachem got back into his groove at Boston College when he made 3-of-6 three-pointers, which gives him at least three in nine of 14 games.

Notre Dame’s home tilt against the Panthers is one of those games where the Irish are likely to need a strong performance from beyond the arc. Notre Dame has been a quality three-point shooting team in 2015-16, converting 118-of-295 for a rock-solid 40 percent.

Beachem leads the way with 40 three-pointers (.460) while three others are bunched together at the next rung – Demetrius Jackson (24-of-58, .414), Steve Vasturia (21-of-54, .389) and freshman Matt Ryan (22-of-58, .379).

With the Irish averaging 8.4 three-pointers made per game – including an 11-of-17 performance at Boston College – they’ll likely need another double-digit three-point output against the Panthers to claim victory.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 4 ½
Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Notre Dame 77, Pittsburgh 76


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