Insiders College Basketball Report

Panthers head to St. John's Saturday for a noon tipoff with a senior-laden Red Storm team battling for an NCAA Tournament bid.

GETTING INSIDE
Pitt (24-2, 12-1) took another step toward the Big East regular-season championship and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a home victory against South Florida. The win lengthened the Panthers' lead in the Big East to two games with five games remaining on the schedule.

Notre Dame (21-4, 10-3) is alone in second place and is likely the only contender that can keep the Panthers from winning the conference title. The Irish own the tiebreaker against the Panthers based on a head-to-head victory in late January.

Beyond the Big East regular-season championship, the Panthers have their sights set on obtaining a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They'll have their work cut out for them. Of the five opponents remaining on the schedule, four have winning records in conference play.

The next opponent could be the most difficult test left. St. John's (16-9, 8-5) has won five of its past six, with victories against Duke and Connecticut in that stretch.

Pitt has won five in a row against St. John's, including two games last season. After St. John's, the three remaining games on the schedule are repeat games against teams the Panthers have already defeated -- West Virginia, South Florida and Villanova in the regular-season finale.

BEYOND THE BOX SCORE: Pitt is getting a little extra from every player while leading scorer Ashton Gibbs is out of the lineup with a knee injury. The Panthers are 3-0 without Gibbs in the lineup.

One player who has picked up the slack is junior forward Nasir Robinson, who has 43 points in those three victories.

Robinson had 13 huge points to tie for the team lead in the victory against South Florida Wednesday night. He also had 10 rebounds for his fifth career double-double.

Robinson also scored 15 in wins against West Virginia and Villanova last week. Gibbs is expected to return to the lineup Saturday against St. John's, but Robinson will be looking to keep his hot streak going.

NOTES, QUOTES
--Pitt used a late 14-2 run to pull after for a 67-55 victory against South Florida Wednesday night. The Panthers were clinging to a two-point lead until Gary McGhee and Brad Wanamaker converted three-point plays 39 seconds apart.

Wanamaker and Robinson each scored 13 points and Talib Zanna and Gilbert Brown added 11 apiece for the Panthers, who shot 46 percent from the field. It was not a strong defensive effort for Pitt, which allowed the usually inept Bulls to shoot 47 percent. But the Panthers did dominate the boards, 40-18, which turned out to be one of the biggest keys to the game.

--Reserve forward Talib Zanna scored 11 points, all in the first half after coming on for Nasir Robinson, who picked up twlo early fouls. Zanna had not scored in five of the previous six games and had only reached double figures once in the previous 21.

--Brad Wanamaker made his first 3-pointer in four games. Wanamaker was 0 for 5 from behind the arc in games against Rutgers, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Villanova.

--When Pitt beat Villanova on Feb. 12 it gave them 11 victories in their first 12 Big East games, a first in school history.

--Pitt has won its first six road games to start Big East play, a first for the school. Pitt is not intimidated on the road, winning 19 of its past 25 road games.

--Pitt has 10 consecutive years with at least 20 overall victories and 10 wins in the Big East Conference.

BY THE NUMBERS: 17 -- Pitt had gone more than 17 years since its last win at the Pavilion before beating Villanova there on Feb. 12. Speaking of numbers, Villanova had won 46 consecutive games at the Pavilion.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "They have good players and a good coach and they share the ball. It is admirable in today's times. You got a lot of these guys that think they are going to play in the (NBA), but they got guys who just play, man, they just play to win. They don't force shots, they don't do things they can't do, they just do what they can do. It is kind of refreshing, actually. Well, tonight it wasn't, but, tonight it was ... I can't say what." -- West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins heaping praise on rival Pittsburgh after losing to the Panthers in Morgantown, W.Va.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

GAME PREVIEW:
--at St. John's, Feb. 19
KEY MATCHUPS: This could be an intriguing game as St. John's is earning a reputation as a giant killer. First, the Johnnies slayed Duke, 93-78, with Dwight Hardy scoring 26 points; SJU also upset Connecticut, 89-72, with Hardy scoring 33. Hardy, in fact, has become one of the top scorers in the conference at 17 points a game entering the week. He is riding a true hot streak. Pitt's defense may be a whole better than both Duke and UConn. The Panthers play a disciplined game that is totally unselfish. This is great test prior to tournament time for the Panthers.

FUTURE'S MARKET: Pittsburgh seems ready to steamroll to the Big East regular-season championship and a double-bye for the conference tournament in Madison Square Garden. The Panthers had six games remaining entering the week, three of them at home, and that included USF twice. They also must play at Louisville and St. John's while hosting WVU and Villanova, both teams they defeated on the road.

PLAYER NOTES:
--G Ashton Gibbs, Pitt's top scorer and best shot for All-America honors, missed his third straight game Wednesday after he'd been out of the WVU and Villanova games last week with a knee injury. The Panthers did not miss a beat.

--G Travon Goodall replaced the injured Ashton Gibbs in the Pittsburgh lineup for the WVU and Villanova games and scored 20 points with only one turnover combined in the two games.


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