Moments after No. 22 Notre Dame's lost to No. 8 Marquette extending its losing skid to four contests, head coach Mike Brey wanted to make one thing clear to his struggling squad.
"It's not cub scouts, man," Brey said. "We signed up for the Big East and this is tough, so I'm not holding any hands. Either grow up and deliver, or don't play. That's where we're at. We're going to go play Pittsburgh, who arguably is the toughest team in the league, so it's all about your leadership stepping forward and we've got good leadership and solid guys, they'll rally, but I'm not giving massages and telling guys they're beautiful. Either you deliver or you don't play."
The loss to the Golden Eagles was a frustrating one for Notre Dame (12-7, 3-5), particularly on the offensive end. The Irish continue to struggle from the field, and their past three games have been the worst shooting performances of the season in terms of field goal percentage. The shooting slumps of Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers have arguably hurt the Irish as much as anyone's struggles, and Saturday's contest at Pittsburgh will give the seniors a chance to break out of their struggles. In the loss to Marquette, Ayers was held without a point, going 0-for-7 from the field.
The Panthers (18-2, 6-2) are also coming off a loss, after a 10-point defeat to No. 21 Villanova last Wednesday. In the battle of in-state rivals, Pittsburgh held a 10-point lead, only to see it diminish thanks in part to Villanova's dynamic guard, Reggie Redding, who finished with 19 points and key baskets down the stretch.
Saturday against the Panthers, Notre Dame's frontcourt will have its hands full attempting to limit Pittsburgh's pair of talented forwards in Sam Young and DeJuan Blair. Young is the most offensively gifted player on the Panthers squad, averaging 18.6 points to go along with his 5.7 rebounds per game. Standing in at 6-foot-6, the senior isn't the tallest forward, but he has worked on the effectiveness of his low-post offense. In addition, Young can slash to the basket and create baskets through penetration, and possesses an improving mid-range jump shot.
Blair is just as productive on offense, netting 14.3 points per game, but it is his relentlessness on the boards that makes him a special player. Although he is undersized at 6-foot-7, the sophomore is picking up 12.4 rebounds per contest, placing him second in the conference, behind Irish junior Luke Harangody who boasts a league-high 13.3 boards per game. One matchup to follow throughout the contest will be this battle between Harangody and Blair, specifically in terms of rebounding. Having seen Blair last season at the Joyce Center in Notre Dame's 82-70 win last February, Brey is well aware of the talent that Blair puts on display, and sees some similarities with his own star forward in Harangody.
"I think he's the total package," he said of Blair. "He's a Player of the Year candidate. Low-post scoring threat, defensive rebounder, outlet passer, post physical presence defensively, I think he's a guy who's become the total package in our league. Again, he's a Player of the Year candidate. I think he's doing a little bit of everything. He was pretty darn good last year, too. I think it's probably the progression of him being older and more confident, more of a veteran now. I'd say maybe the offensive stuff is an area where I've seen improvement. It's a little bit like Harangody's evolution. They've become smoother basketball players. They were always physical forces and I think with each year they're basketball IQ has gone up."
The face off between Blair and Harangody is one that will test a budding friendship. Harangody attended Amare Stoudemire's basketball summer camp and hung out with Blair and Connecticut forward Jeff Adrien, and has since struck up a friendly rivalry with both players. In anticipation of Saturday's matchup, Blair has been in Harangody's ear, notifying him of the atmosphere at the Peterson Events Center in Pittsburgh.
"I've never played at Pitt before and he was talking about, ‘Get ready for it,'" Harangody said. "He says it gets crazy in there so I'm excited to go play there Saturday. He's just so strong and such a competitor. I respect him a lot and I like playing against him. I know it's going to be a challenge every night. I know from experience he really gets hyped up to play me. We're going to both be bruised and battered after this game."
Pittsburgh boasts the second-highest rebounding margin per game in the Big East, picking up +9.1 boards per contest. Much of this is due to the effort that Panthers coach Jamie Dixon expends focusing on offensive rebounding. The Panthers are second in the league in offensive boards, picking up an average of 15.7 per game.
"They do a great job with strength and size and pushing you under," Brey said of the squad's propensity to collect offensive rebounds. "They've traditionally done it on free-throw situations too. The Pitt MO really hasn't changed much. The names have changed, the style and the bodies have been pretty similar since I've come here. It's something that they've always done well and even though they don't have great height, it's strength that has helped them offensive rebound like that."
The third cog in Pittsburgh's game is point guard Levance Fields who is third on the team in scoring with 10.6 points per game, but runs the offensive system, tallying 6.8 assists per contest. Fields has been known to put up points with his jump shot and is coming off of double-figure scoring in each of his past three games. Irish point guard Tory Jackson will have the responsibility of foiling Fields and disrupting his rhythm.
With the Irish looking to bust out of their slump, the Panthers are not an ideal candidate to face. The squad is second in the conference is scoring defense, allowing a stingy 60.2 points per game. With Notre Dame's offense reeling, Saturday will pose quite the challenge when it comes to putting points on the board. As Big East losses keep on piling on the Irish, there is almost no margin for error the remainder of the league schedule. In a season in which the Big East is arguably the toughest and deepest league to play in, the competition for tournament bids will be sparse and intense. Games such as Saturday's will show if the Irish have what it takes to turn the season around, and overcome the four-game losing streak. For Notre Dame, it all starts on Saturday.