Pitt hoops-Auburn preview

The second ranked University of Pittsburgh men's basketball team (7-0) plays its first road game of the season when it ventures to Alabama to play Auburn (6-2). Pitt won their game against the Tigers 78-41 last season. The Panthers are expecting a much stiffer challenge today. PantherDigest.com Senior Writer Dale Grdnic previews the game.

PITTSBURGH -- The University of Pittsburgh men's basketball team has had a history of travel problems for its road trips, but as long as the Panthers make it to Auburn, Ala. to face the Tigers at Memorial Coliseum they should be just fine.

Second-ranked Pitt, 7-0 to open its fifth straight season, has won 18 consecutive nonconference games with five straight wins against the Southeastern Conference. This is its first trip to Auburn.

"They lost one kid, but they have everybody else back,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "And, usually, the biggest improvement is from freshman to sophomore year. So, they should be a lot better and a completely different team with (Josh) Dollard back after missing the first five games.''

It's a bit early for the Panthers to hit the road, but Dixon put together a tougher schedule to help its seeding in the NCAA Tournament. And the matchup with Auburn starts a difficult stretch. After returning home for a matchup against city rival Duquesne Wednesday night, Pitt visits Buffalo Dec. 9, No. 12 Wisconsin Dec. 16 and Oklahoma State Dec. 21.

"It definitely feels different, because we usually leave after we're like 10, 11 or 12-0,'' Pitt junior guard Keith Benjamin said. "And that's usually just to go to the Garden, so it's great to play a team on their own campus in their own back yard.

"I think this is going to be real good for us. We've been playing some good opponents, but Auburn is a real good team to play on the road. They came up here last year, and we beat them by 30-some. So, I'm pretty sure they'll give us their all this time.''

Pitt pounded Auburn 78-41 at the Petersen Events Center about a year ago, but the Tigers are much improved this season. They are 6-2 with three players -- sophomore forward Korvotney Barber and sophomore guard Rasheem Barrett and junior guard Frank Tolbert -- all averaging better than 14 points per game. Barber is the tallest starter at 6-foot-7, but sophomore Dollard can come off the bench. The 6-7 forward has scored 12 points the past two games.

Barber also averages 8.3 rebounds per game. The other starters are sophomore Quantez Robertson (9.8 points) and freshman DeWayne Reed (8.5). Auburn is 6-0 at home this season with losses to Okie State and Wisconsin at the South Padre Island, Texas Invitational.

"A couple of their players seem to be a little more athletic, and I think they worked hard over the offseason to get a lot better,'' Benjamin said. "So, we have to be ready for them. (But) we look at every game as a test.

"And we have to get up for every game. We don't want to be the team that loses when we have a chance to be No. 1, so it's great for everyone. And we're going to keep working hard to reach that goal.''

Dixon believed that the Panthers will be pushed a bit on the offensive end because Auburn has a solid defensive team.

"They'll be a good test for us because they do a number of different things on the defensive end that we need to prepare for,'' Dixon said. "They'll trap in the halfcourt on the first pass, but we're not putting anything new in for it. We've played teams like this, so it's not anything we haven't seen.

"But we're not as good as we need to be, and we're certainly not as good as we want to be right now. So, we're looking for improvement. It's as simple as that. But our guys want to be better, so they're working hard in practice to improve every day. And that's where we're at right now.''

Benjamin had a more positive outlook.

"I'd like to think that we'll beat anybody,'' Benjamin said. "The top teams seem to be pretty balanced, but we have the most veterans here. They have a lot of freshmen playing all around the country, so I think that's an advantage for us if we get to play them.''

In this upcoming stretch of road games, Pitt will get that chance.


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