Coach Jamie Dixon has been a part of life among the Big East elite for quite a while now, but this season he has found out how the other half lives.
With his defense struggling and with his top recruit having left school, Dixon's Panthers have dropped four straight games for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.
The defense reached its low point when DePaul, previously the worst team in the league, beat Pitt with a late surge.
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted, Pitt became a national power thanks to its focus on defense. But this year, the defense has already struggled, including allowing DePaul's Brandon Young to twice drive through for layups in the final seconds of an 84-81 loss, as the paper pointed out.
Shooting woes have also done in the Panthers, who have gone from one of the nation's top shooting 3-points team to one having huge problems. Before the DePaul game they had hit only 10 of their previous 59 tries, just 16.9 percent. They were playing without injured point guard Tray Woodall, a 42-percent 3-point shooter, and with star Ashton Gibbs slumping.
Gibbs needs just three 3-pointers to pass Jason Matthews for the most in Pitt history at 260, but he has hit only six 3-pointers in his 167 minutes of play over five games.
Senior F Nasir Robinson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that after the Cincinnati loss, coach Jamie Dixon put the whistles away at practice in hopes of getting the players to play with more of an edge in games.
"Today we had a drill where we just let us get after it," he said. "Guys were throwing each other around. A couple of guys got their mouths bloodied today. He was letting us play. I think we needed that. I think it's going to help us. It will carry over into the games." The Panthers still lost to DePaul.
BY THE NUMBERS: 60.1 and 38.7 -- Those were the average number of points and the field-goal percentage Pitt allowed last year to lead the Big East. This season those numbers have swelled to 66.5 points a game, 12th in the conference, and a 44.1 field-goal percentage defense, 15th in the league.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a different year. We're not executing like we usually do in the second half, not playing how Pitt plays." -- Senior F Nasir Robinson on how Pitt has not won games late as they had come to be known to do.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Rutgers, Jan. 11
KEY MATCHUPS: If you are going to break out of a slump, it will probably come at home against one of the non-power members of the Big East, which makes this game against Rutgers an important one to the Panthers. However, judging by the last meeting between the teams, on Jan. 29 last year in New Jersey, this could be a tough battle. The Panthers won, 65-62, overcoming a tough shooting night from the floor by hitting free throws. Pitt hit only one basket in the final 7:03 of that game. Rutgers is 1-2 in the conference but coming off a stunning victory at Connecticut on the day Jim Calhoun returned to the bench for the Huskies.
At Marquette, Jan. 14
KEY MATCHUPS: Marquette had a tough week as it lost at No. 1 Syracuse and at No. 9 Georgetown, two games in which the Warriors showed themselves to be a tough out. Syracuse won by just 7, Georgetown escaping with a 3-point victory. After starting with 10 straight wins, Marquette lost four of its next six games. Marquette relies heavily on the 1-2 punch of Darius Odom-Johnson, who averages 18.0 points a game and Jae Crowder, who averages 16.5. Both are long-distance bombers, which will test the 3-point defense of Pitt, Odom-Johnson hitting about the same number and percentage. Johnson-Odom had 31 3s and Crowder 30, the percentages being .373 and .373.
FUTURES MARKET: Coach Jamie Dixon decided to move sophomore Talib Zanna and freshman John Johnson into the starting lineup for the DePaul game in an effort to help his office. Johnson could be a big time player in the future and took advantage of his first start by playing a career-high 28 minutes and finishing with 10 points, his second career double-figure scoring game. How long he remains in the starting lineup remains to be seen.
"At times, I like John coming off the bench because he gives a little more spark, a little more offense. I wanted to get him started early," Dixon said.
--After losing to Cincinnati, coach Jamie Dixon benched C Dante Taylor and replaced him with sophomore Talib Zanna. Dixon also benched SG Cameron Wright and replaced him with freshman John Johnson. The Panthers still lost the next time out to DePaul.
--Former Pitt freshman Khem Birch, who quit the team after playing 10 games, was reportedly visiting Florida. Reports also had him interested in New Mexico State, UNLV, Gonzaga and Oregon State, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
--PG Tray Woodall has continued to be out with a stomach injury, hurting not only the perimeter defense but the offense. Coach Jamie Dixon refuses to use it as an excuse, though.
"Nobody wants to hear excuses," Dixon told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We haven't done that before. We're not going to do that now. You have to play with who you have. That's for other people to do. We can't do that. We're not going to focus on that.
"We hope he's recovering and feeling better. When we have him, he's a very good player. But, right now, these are the guys we have."
--G Ashton Gibbs, the preseason Big East Player of the Year, has battled an ankle injury while filling in for Tray Woodall at the point rather than playing his accustomed shooting guard spot and that has hurt his efficiency.