Fresh off its first victory in three weeks, Pitt (16-14, 5-12) will face Connecticut at noon on… Fresh off its first victory in three weeks, Pitt (16-14, 5-12) will face Connecticut at noon on Saturday in its final game of the year.
With their postseason hopes in jeopardy, the Panthers (16-14, 5-12) will hope to build momentum heading into the Big East Tournament on Tuesday. But a tough challenge waits in Hartford as the Huskies (17-12, 7-10) want to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume.
“Tonight was definitely a good start,” Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs said of the team’s win over St. John’s. “It started on defense and then carried over from there.”
Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said he believes the Panthers played their best basketball of the year in the win over the Red Storm.
“I thought we just defended really well today,” Dixon said. “We’ve battled through some things, we’ve battled through injuries, but again we had all our guys out there these last days of practice … I think we’re playing good basketball.”
Connecticut lost seven of its last 10 games and is currently playing without legendary coach Jim Calhoun on the sidelines. Calhoun has missed the previous eight games due to a spinal condition for which he underwent surgery on Monday.
In Connecticut’s last game, the Huskies lost 72-70 to the Providence Friars, a team in second-to-last place in the conference. Connecticut began the second half of the game on an 11-1 run, and at one point stretched its lead to 14. but the Huskies allowed the Friars to claw their way back into the game.
“I thought we had control of the game, but we did a lot of things wrong from that point on,” Connecticut interim head coach George Blaney said.
The Huskies present multiple match-up problems for the Panthers. Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier figure to give the Pitt defense problems, just as talented perimeter players have done all year long.
Lamb, a 6-foot-5, 180-pound sophomore guard/forward, ranks third in the Big East in scoring at 17.7 points per game and leads the Huskies in that category. The Panthers will need bigger frontcourt players like Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore to defend the athletic swingman, who may give them trouble with his speed and shooting ability.
The Huskies’ other talented sophomore guard, 6-foot-1, 171-pound Napier, runs the point and leads the team in assists at 5.9 per game — third-best in the Big East — and is the team’s second-leading scorer with 12.1 points per game.
Pitt guards Travon Woodall and Ashton Gibbs will need to counter Napier’s explosiveness on the perimeter, and do their best to prevent Napier from initiating the offense.
In the post, 6-foot-10, 270-pound freshman Andre Drummond is a looming presence under the basket. Drummond leads the team in rebounds, pulling down 7.9 boards per game, and is third in the Big East in blocks with 2.6 per game. The fourth-leading scorer on the team with 10.3 points per game, Connecticut’s starting center will pose a challenge to Pitt’s rather undersized front line.
Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna will most likely draw the assignment of bodying Drummond in the post. Pitt’s big men will need to prevent Drummond from getting to his favorite spots to post up and keep him off the glass.
Another player who could see time against Drummond is Pitt’s largest player, 6-foot-11, 235-pound freshman center Malcolm Gilbert. Although he played sparingly throughout the early parts of the season, Dixon has been playing Gilbert against teams with bigger players, like Louisville and West Virginia, so Gilbert might see time matched up against Drummond.
A bright spot for the Panthers in their most recent game was seeing Gibbs’ name at the top of the scoring sheet. He led the team in scoring with 19 points, shooting 7-14 from the field and converting his first 3-point shot in three games.
Dixon noted Gibbs’ patience against St. John’s, but also his aggression and shot selection.
“He did less things off the dribble, he caught and shot … We practiced against the match-up zone and that paid off,” he said.
With the strong performance against St. John’s, Dixon remains hopeful that the Panthers can carry this momentum into the game against Connecticut and the Big East tournament.
“I feel like we’re playing as good of basketball as we’ve played all year,” Dixon said. “We’re just going to go forward here and get ready for Saturday at UConn.”