Men’s Basketball: Tall Tennessee squad to challenge Panthers at Consol

By Kelly Flanigan

Pitt already has one home, and sort of two. Over the years, the men’s basketball team has… Pitt already has one home, and sort of two. Over the years, the men’s basketball team has shown that it has a clear advantage at both the Petersen Events Center and Madison Square Garden in New York City.

This Saturday though, No. 3-ranked Pitt will attempt to find a third “home” when it takes on No. 11 Tennessee at its second game in the Consol Energy Center Downtown.

The first win for the Panthers at Consol came against city rival Duquesne, which Pitt (10-0) handily defeated 80-66.

Pitt hopes for a similar outcome when it tips off at 3:15 p.m. in what could be its most challenging matchup so far this season.

The Volunteers (6-0) come to Pittsburgh as a dangerous team riding a six-game winning streak and 11 days off to focus on practice.

“[Tennessee is] very experienced; I’d say they’re probably more experienced than we are,” head coach Jamie Dixon said. “They are very deep. They run a lot of plays similar to what we run. They’re good, and our guys know that, and I think they have a respect for our program as well.”

The Volunteers boast a convincing win early in the season against Pitt’s Big East Conference rival Villanova, a preseason top-10 team.

“It’s a good matchup, and I think it’s what everybody hoped for when they put this Big East/SEC matchup together,” Dixon said in a news conference.

The Volunteers have a healthy mix of leadership and youth in their starting five. In particular, Pitt needs to look out for junior guards Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum. Hopson averages 16.3 points per game, and Tatum averages 11.8.

Head coach Bruce Pearl cited breakdowns in communication and especially turnover issues as his team’s major weaknesses at this point in the season.

“We turned it over too much,” Pearl said. “I thought many of our turnovers were just bad decisions about the way we take it, when to break it down. We forced it in some traffic situations and made some poor decisions.”

The Panthers come into Saturday’s game off a 70-42 win over Delaware State on Wednesday night.

The team’s performance against the Hornets encouraged Dixon.

“I thought we did some things well, such as rebounding, defending and taking care of the ball,” Dixon said. “Those were some points that we’ve been emphasizing the past few weeks, and we’ve been able to take care of them. It’s been a good stretch of games for us.”

Pitt currently leads the nation in rebounding.

If Pitt wants to have similar success on Saturday, it will need players like Brad Wanamaker, Ashton Gibbs and Gary McGhee to be scoring threats like they were early in the season.

Gibbs scored only nine points on Wednesday, well below his season average. McGhee will have competition on the boards, too, as the Volunteers boast two players at 6-foot-8-inches, one at 6-foot-9 and another at 6-foot-10.

In addition, Pitt will need continued production from bench players like Dante Taylor, J.J. Moore and especially the physical play of Nasir Robinson.

Not only does this game feature two competitive teams, but two successful head coaches as well. Jamie Dixon is two wins away from his 200th career victory and has a .786 winning percentage at Pitt.

Bruce Pearl has a .775 win percentage in his six years at Tennessee. Both coaches are among the top-four winningest active head coaches in at least five years of Division I college basketball.

But Saturday’s contest is the only thing on Dixon’s mind right now.

“Our focus right now is solely on Tennessee,” he said.

The game is part of the DIRECTV SEC/Big East Invitational, which also features a Rutgers-Auburn matchup at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.,