Men’s basketball: Panthers look to bounce back against USF

By Kelly Flanigan

All the Pitt men’s basketball team needed was one more win (and a Notre Dame loss). Another… All the Pitt men’s basketball team needed was one more win (and a Notre Dame loss). Another mark in the Panthers’ (25-4, 13-3 Big East) victory column would have solidified the 2011 regular season Big East title for the team.

But after a 62-59 loss to the Louisville Cardinals, Pitt’s hold on first place is shrinking heading into tonight’s game against South Florida, where the No. 5 Panthers have a chance to claim at least a share of the Big East title.

“We just can’t worry about the pressure [to win the Big East title]. We just have to go out there and focus and take it one game at a time,” senior guard Brad Wanamaker said in a news conference this week. “We’ve got to go  and handle our business at South Florida, and then come home and handle our business against Villanova.”

South Florida (9-20, 3-13 Big East) is coming off an 86-76 victory against DePaul heading into tonight’s game in Tampa, Fla.

This is the Panther’s second meeting with the Bulls. Last month, a late second-half 14-2 Panther rally propelled Pitt to a 67-55 victory.

But coming off a loss, the Panthers need to regroup and focus on beating the Bulls — even if South Florida only has three league wins.

“They’re a really talented team,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said of the Bulls this week. “They have guys who can score inside and guys who can shoot outside the perimeter.”

Absent from Pitt’s first game against South Florida was the Panthers’ leading scorer Ashton Gibbs, who missed several games because of an injury. But Gibbs returned last month and his 16-point-per-game average could help the Panthers avoid another close contest against South Florida.

Between Gibbs’ shooting and the recent offensive production of Wanamaker, the Panthers should expect great output from the team’s backcourt.

“[Coach Dixon] has been telling me I’ve done a pretty good job on offense. People have been telling me I need to be more aggressive out there,” Wanamaker said. “I just try to go out there and play my game and try to do what is best for the team. When I feel the time is right, I’ll take the shot.”

In addition to the guards, Pitt has benefited from the aggressive rebounding of its forwards. The Panthers out-rebounded South Florida in the last game by a dominating 40-18 margin.

Gary McGhee contributed in large part to the rebounding efforts on both the offensive and defensive ends, pulling down almost eight rebounds in the teams’ last match-up.

“[Rebounding] is definitely something we’re focused on. [South Florida] is a big team and a decent rebounding team. We just have to attack them on the glass and try to get second shot opportunities,” McGhee said. “That’s something we didn’t do against Louisville, so we’re looking forward to coming out against South Florida and crashing on the glass.”

Six-foot-10 South Florida forward Augustus Gilchrist will look to match up physically with McGhee under the hoop. He is the Bulls’ leading scorer, averaging 12 points per game.

“It’s a team that has a talented inside and the guards are getting more and more comfortable with one another, so we’re getting ready for them and doing our best to prepare for the game,” Dixon said.

The Panther players know they cannot afford to take South Florida lightly, despite the Bulls’ losing record.

“In March, teams come at you. For us to win games, we need to be prepared from start to finish. We’ve been playing as a second-half team in the last couple of games, but that’s going to change,” Wanamaker said. “We need to handle business from the jump ball, and that’s what we are going to do.”