Pitt Looks To Bounce Back

Nobody's panicking on the Pitt men's basketball team right now, even though the Panthers went through a light, 40-minute practice upon arriving home from Wednesday night's loss at Villanova.

And don't expect Pittsburgh (18-2, 6-2) to change anything, especially on defense, when facing slumping Notre Dame (12-7, 3-5) in a Big East matchup Saturday at noon at the Petersen Events Center. The Fighting Irish have lost four straight.

The same defensive style that stymied Georgetown, Syracuse and West Virginia, was ineffective at times against Louisville and Villanova primarily due to foul trouble and specifically with sophomore center DeJuan Blair's play.

"There's a lot of contact out there,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "It's a fine line between not being in foul trouble and being in foul trouble. It's one whistle, two whistles. (But) I don't think anybody hopes to be in foul trouble. It's not a game plan for us. But it happens. We've been in foul trouble before and figured out ways to get it done.''

The Panthers, 2-2 in their past four games after starting the season 16-0 and ranked No. 1 in the national polls, apparently must find walk that fine line while playing a physical defensive style in the college basketball's best league. The Big East isn't for the weak and weary.

"A lot of people would like to be where we're at, but we obviously lost the game the other day, and that's what everybody is talking about," Dixon said. "We've just got to play better team defense, and we've got to do a better job taking care of the ball.

"And, obviously, we can't put people at the free-throw line. The two games we've lost we've been outscored at the free-throw line by a significant margin, and that's something that we have to fix.''

So, the Panthers will trudge on against a Notre Dame, which is trying to prove it belongs with Pitt in the upper echelon of the Big East. The Irish are unranked now, but had been as high as No. 7 in the national polls.

"Obviously, they're in the middle of a tough stretch, like everybody is,'' Dixon said. "They're a top-10 team. They've got a lot of good people. And we've got a lot of good teams in our league, That's just the way it is. When two good teams get together, only one can win. I think that's simple, but it can be forgotten, at times.''

Notre Dame is led by 6-foot-8 Luke Harangody, the Big East's player of the year last season, and he's on pace to repeat that honor with 25 points and 13.3 rebounds per game on average this season. He has scored 20-plus points in 12 straight games with nine straight double-doubles.

Harangody appears to be gunning a lot more this year, and Dixon backed that theory but didn't use those words.

"He's getting a lot more shots,'' Dixon said. "I think his shots are up to 23 from 16 the just the last five games. They're going to him more. They have shuffled their lineup some. He's going to get shots up. (And) he's going to score some points. So you got to make them tough shots and make them contested and limit the catches in certain areas. And that's what we'll attempt to do.''

One move that veteran Notre Dame coach Mike Brey made in the last game was to start perennial backup, junior guard Jonathan Peoples. And senior starters like seniors Ryan Ayers and Zach Hillesland are now backups.

After Harangody, Notre Dame's scoring drops off to Kyle McAlarney's 16.2 points per game, Tory Jackson at 11.2 and Ayers at 10.2. The Fighting Irish appear to rotate nine players overall, but four average more than 30 minutes playing time per game and seven are in double figures in minutes played.

"We've adjusted our lineup a bit, not to demote people or bench, but just to try to get some different combinations going and see if we can't shake it up a little bit,'' Brey said. "Some it helped, and some it didn't. Tyrone Nash, he gave us some good minutes. He's athletic and can defend. (But) at some point, Ayers and Hillesland have to come around for us.

"That has to happen for us to be successful. And I really believe they will. They've handled not starting like men. They're senior captains, and they want to do what's best for the program. You're trying to just get one key win to spark things, so we'll try that again this week. That's what we're going for at Pittsburgh. The Panthers are the model of consistency in the Big East.

"(This is) a league of men. And Pitt is the epitome of that. They're the one team that loses seniors and gets sophomores who are 22 years old and ready to go. Jamie's done a fabulous job, and I'm sure they'll be ready for us. After losing four in a row, we certainly can use a bounce-back win. I want us to be loose and play, so we'll see what happens.''

And Pitt will attempt to tighten things up again for the Fighting Irish.

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