Pittsburgh visits No. 5 Syracuse Saturday for a noon tipoff, travels to Cincinnati Monday for a 7 p.m. matchup and then has some time off before a road game with No. 10 Connecticut Jan. 13 at 7 p.m.
Sure, the Orange is undefeated and highly-ranked, while Pitt is unranked and fielding maybe its least-experienced team in the last decade. No one knows better than Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim that Saturday's game against the rebuilding Panthers won't be easy.
Pitt is 8-3 against Syracuse over the last 11 games in the series dating to 2001-02 season, and the Panthers have won four consecutive games at the Carrier Dome, including a 66-45 win in 2004 that at the time was the Orange's most one-sided home loss ever.
Pitt has had some talented teams in recent years, but another reason for the dominance has been the Panthers' ability to defeat the Syracuse 2-3 zone defense. Syracuse was ranked eighth nationally when the two teams met last season, but Pitt managed to shoot 53 percent from the field. The secret is not hitting outside shots, although that helps. For Pitt, it has been the ability to penetrate the zone, get shots in the paint and grab offensive rebounds.
DeJuan Blair had eight offensive rebounds and scored 20 points in last year's meeting. Blair is in the NBA now, but Pitt still averages more than 12 offensive rebounds per game. If the Panthers are to have a shot, centers Gary McGhee and Dante Taylor must play well.
PITT 65, DePAUL 52: Ashton Gibbs was 7-for-11 from the field and scored a game-high 23 points to lead the Panthers to the victory in the conference opener for both teams. The Panthers bolted to a 39-25 halftime lead and had to hold on when the offense bogged down in the second half.
DePaul cut the lead to 54-49 with 5:41 remaining, but Pitt scored 11 of the final 14 points to seal the win. Jermaine Dixon added 12 points, and the Panthers held their fourth consecutive opponent to less than 40 percent shooting.
--Pitt held 10 of its first 12 opponents this season to 60 points or less. On the flip side, the two opponents who scored more than that -- Texas (78) and Indiana (74) -- are the two teams to beat the Panthers in nonconference play.
--G Ashton Gibbs has made 33 consecutive free throws. He needs two more to break the school record that is held by three other former players.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: It's a challenging opening stretch of Big East play for Pitt. After beginning at home against DePaul on Dec. 28, the Panthers get three straight on the road -- Syracuse, Cincinnati and Connecticut. The next few games aren't much better -- home tilts against Louisville and Georgetown, and a trip to play a frisky Seton Hall squad.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're not where I want us to be,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "I know that we lost a lot after last season and what the expectations are for us from a lot of different media outlets, but I never buy into that.
"I think we have the ability to keep things going. It's just about players stepping up. (Now, in) Big East play, I keep telling our guys, the freshmen need to play like sophomores, and the sophomores need to play like juniors.''
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: In nonconference play, the Panthers essentially held serve, with the only unexpected outcome perhaps a disappointing loss to Indiana on a neutral court. That may not sound like much of a beginning for a team that made the Elite Eight last year, but after beginning the season having to replace four starters -- and with his two most experienced players on the sidelines in Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown -- Jamie Dixon will take it.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Nasir Robinson, C Gary McGhee, G Bradley Wanamaker, G Ashton Gibbs, G Jermaine Dixon. Key Subs -- G Travon Woodall, G Chase Adams, F Gilbert Brown, F Dante Taylor.
Pittsburgh 71, Kent 59
Pittsburgh 66, Mount St. Mary's 48
Pittsburgh 74, Ohio 49
Pittsburgh 65, DePaul 52
at Syracuse, Saturday, Jan. 2
at Cincinnati, Monday, Jan. 4
at Connecticut, Wednesday, Jan. 13
vs. Louisville, Saturday, Jan. 16
IN FOCUS: All eyes are going to be on the Pitt-Syracuse game on Jan. 2. The Orange will enter with an impressive ranking and the status as a favorite in the Big East, but these teams have played numerous memorable matchups in recent years and this game has the potential to be another one that goes down to the wire.
--G Brad Wanamaker is playing small forward for the first time in his career and appears to be picking up a knack for rebounding. Wanamaker led the team for the second game in rebounds when he had nine against DePaul. He is the team's second-leading rebounder, averaging almost seven per game.
--G Jermaine Dixon scored in double figures for the second consecutive game. Dixon, who missed the first eight games of the season with a foot injury, scored 12 against DePaul following a 14-point performance against Ohio University last week.
--F Gilbert Brown returned to the lineup against Ohio after serving a suspension that sidelined him for the first semester. He wasn't allowed to practice with the team while he concentrated on academics, but the rust didn't show in his debut. Brown went 4 of 4 from the field and finished with 11 points.
--G Jermaine Dixon didn't leave campus during the holiday break, though most of his teammates did. He elected to stay closer to the gym to continue his rehabilitation as he works his way back to full strength from a foot injury.
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