Men’s Basketball: Pitt hopes to reverse losing streak

By Greg Trietley

When Pitt men’s basketball met the Louisville Cardinals in January, both programs desperately… When Pitt men’s basketball met the Louisville Cardinals in January, both programs desperately needed to turn their seasons around.

The Panthers didn’t. The Cardinals did.

No. 17 Louisville (21-6, 9-5 Big East) can sweep the season series against reeling Pitt (15-13, 4-11 Big East) when the two schools meet Sunday at 2 p.m. at the KFC Yum! Center.

Louisville’s 73-62 win at Pitt on Jan. 21 began a six-game in-conference win streak for the Cardinals, helping the team rise to a half-game behind Georgetown for a double-bye in next month’s Big East tournament.

The Cardinals have used a balanced, deep lineup to climb in the standings since dropping five of seven games in late December and early January. Four players average double-digit points per game, paced by Kyle Kuric’s 13.3 and Russ Smith’s 12.

Kuric, a senior, had 21 points and five rebounds in Louisville’s win at Pitt last month when a tender ankle forced him to take more perimeter shots than typical for the 6-foot-4 forward.

The Cardinals overcame a 17-point first-half deficit to win in overtime at DePaul last Saturday, 90-82. Louisville plays at Cincinnati Thursday night.

The Panthers, meanwhile, enter the weekend on a four-game losing streak that guarantees they will play on the opening day of the Big East tournament. The most recent defeat came Sunday to South Florida, 56-47, Pitt’s seventh home loss this season.

Pitt’s problems on offense run deep.

“Offensively, not getting to the free-throw line, not getting in the lane and not finishing baskets are some of the things that have hurt us all year and tonight,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said after the loss to the Bulls.

Pitt, the top rebounding team in the Big East, had 12 offensive boards against South Florida, but the Bulls still held the Panthers to under 50 points for their second consecutive game.

Dixon said that finishing put-backs and second chances has been an issue.

“We have been getting offensive rebounds, but we don’t seem to be getting the production that goes with that,” he said.

Sophomore J.J. Moore scored a career-high 21 points in the loss to South Florida and shot a perfect 3-for-3 from the field in a 66-48 loss to West Virginia last Thursday. Moore said Sunday that he thinks he can continue to build off his strong individual performances.

“It’s definitely something I can build off of. My teammates gave me the confidence and told me to just be aggressive and attack the rim,” Moore said. “I just tried to bring a lot of energy off the bench and get us the win, but we fell short.”

Dixon said Moore has played better both with the ball and without it.

“He is getting to the basket as far as cutting and moving without the ball and has gotten a couple breakaways,” Dixon said. “He has been playing better defense first and foremost. That’s good to see for a sophomore as he is going forward. He can do other things and not rely on outside shooting at this point. That will come as he feels more comfortable.”

Pitt’s leading scorer Ashton Gibbs, though, shot just 1 for 7 for two points against South Florida. Gibbs, the Big East Preseason Player of the Year, has gone without a 3-pointer in three of Pitt’s last four games.

“I think it was a mixture of both [the Bulls] playing tough defense and I missed a couple of open shots,” Gibbs said Sunday. “I didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that my teammates created for me tonight and I didn’t do my job, which is to knock down shots.”

Louisville possesses a stifling defense that holds opponents to the lowest field goal percentage in the Big East (37.6 percent). Sophomore center Gorgui Dieng provides size in the paint for the Cardinals, chipping in 10.0 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

The Cardinals are also second in the conference in steals with 9.2 per game.

Pitt, on the other hand, has struggled to force turnovers all season. The Panthers are last in the Big East in steals with 4.9 per contest. In their history, they have never averaged fewer than five steals per game in a season.