Men’s Basketball: Pitt set to face Oklahoma State in Madison Square Garden

By Greg Trietley

The Pitt men’s basketball team’s home away from home hasn’t been too friendly… The Pitt men’s basketball team’s home away from home hasn’t been too friendly recently.

The Panthers have gone just 3-5 at Madison Square Garden since they won the Big East tournament there in 2008. From Dwight Hardy’s controversial game-winning layup last February to Kemba Walker’s step-back buzzer-beater over Gary McGhee in March, Pitt has struggled at the world’s most famous arena.

The Garden hosts the Panthers (8-1) again Saturday afternoon when they face the Oklahoma State Cowboys (6-2) at 2:30 p.m. in the Carquest Auto Parts Classic.

The Cowboys enter the game in an offensive slump. Despite a three-game winning streak, they rank last in the Big 12 with a 43.4 percent shooting percentage. They are also last in their conference in assists per game (10.6).

Highly-touted freshman Le’Bryan Nash leads the Cowboys with 12.6 points per game. Nash, named to the Wayman Tisdale Award Preseason Watch List alongside Khem Birch and 10 other freshmen, scored 19 points and added eight rebounds off the bench in the Cowboys’ 72-67 victory over Missouri State on Wednesday.

Senior guard Keiton Page and sophomore guard Markel Brown also average double-digit points for the Cowboys.

For Pitt, an injury to starting point guard Tray Woodall has brought out the best in Jamie Dixon’s team. The Panthers put up a season-high 97 points against Virginia Military Institute Tuesday.

Pitt has averaged 80.1 points per game this year, the second-best mark among Big East schools. Dixon can thank the hot 3-point shooting of Ashton Gibbs, Lamar Patterson, J.J. Moore and John Johnson for the offensive surge.

All four players, as well as the injured Woodall, are averaging at least 41 percent from 3-point range this season.

“We thought Lamar was going to be a good shooter. We thought J.J. could be a good shooter. I don’t think we knew about the other guys,” head coach Jamie Dixon said after the game Tuesday. “John Johnson shot the ball well. I don’t think I can say I predicted that.”

The freshman Johnson is 11-of-17 from 3-point range this season.

Moore went 4-for-6 from deep in the 97-70 victory over VMI, and afterward he credited his teammates for setting screens to get him open.

“I saw it in their defense. It was definitely what they were giving me,” Moore said after the game. “My team was setting a lot of good screens. Dante [Taylor], Lamar, and Nasir [Robinson] were all setting good screens. They were getting me open and that was basically good team play for us.”

Johnson said Tuesday that the team tries to use screens and quick passes to set up an open man.

“In practice, we try to play unselfish and pass the ball more to get everyone involved,” he said.

Pitt leads all Big East programs in assists per game (19.3).

In the paint, Khem Birch started over Dante Taylor in the last five games, all Pitt victories, but Dixon said that he likes how Taylor has played off the bench.

“Obviously [Taylor] is playing more minutes than Khem is,” Dixon said. “He’s been more productive and you can’t hide from the numbers. I kind of like it in some regards because we have such a young group. Our bench is so young, so we have a junior who has been around and knows what we are doing.”

Taylor is averaging 8.7 points and 6.1 rebounds this season.