Men’s basketball: Dixon to see a familiar face as Pitt steps out of Big East play for game against Robert Morris

By Kyle Craig

Tonight the Panther basketball team gets a brief respite from its unforgiving Big East… Tonight the Panther basketball team gets a brief respite from its unforgiving Big East schedule as Robert Morris (16-8, 11-1 NEC) visits the Petersen Events Center.

History suggests that the Colonials will provide Pitt (17-6, 7-4 Big East) with an opportunity to comfortably pad its win column. The Panthers have won all 27 meetings between the two schools and have never lost to a team from the Northeastern Conference.

But to say that the result of this contest is a foregone conclusion would be far from the truth. The recent success of the Colonials has turned this local “rivalry” game into a contest worth watching.

Following a conference championship and a NCAA Tournament birth last year, Robert Morris carried that momentum into this season. The Colonials are on a nine-game win streak and hold a one-game lead in their conference standings.

Robert Morris head coach Mike Rice is no stranger to Oakland or the Petersen Events Center. Before taking the reigns at Robert Morris in 2007, Rice spent a year as an assistant coach to Jamie Dixon at Pitt.

Since coming to the Colonials, Rice has a 66-27 record and was named the NEC Jim Phelan Coach of the Year two years in a row.

Rice, whose father used to be the head coach at Duquesne University, led the Colonials to the top of the NEC regular season standings in each of his first two seasons. Last season, under Rice, Robert Morris won its first NEC Tournament championship in 17 years.

On the court, the Colonials are led by undersized guard Karon Abraham. As a true freshman, the 5-foot-9 Abraham averages 12.9 points per game and is shooting 3-pointers with a 46 percent success rate.

Abraham isn’t the only player making an impact though, as Robert Morris employs a deep rotation that incorporates a large portion of its bench. The Colonials have eight players who average more than six points per game.

The Colonials suffered a 40-point loss to Syracuse, the only other Big East opponent on its schedule, in the Carrier Dome to begin the season. The other opponent that Robert Morris and Pitt share is Kent State. The Golden Flashes beat the Colonials, 71-57.

In comparison, the Panthers defeated Syracuse and Kent State with scores of 82-72 and 71-59, respectively.

Coming off an 83-58 thumping of Seton Hall, the Panthers would like to replicate that offensive production as they prepare for a rematch against West Virginia at the end of the week.

Most of Pitt’s offensive output against Seton Hall can be attributed to the performance of redshirt junior Gilbert Brown, who, after being held scoreless in Morgantown Wednesday, scored 23 points and shot 9-14 from the field against the Pirates.

Another Panther who bounced back was Gary McGhee. After struggling to finish at the basket against the Mountaineers, he collected a double-double against Seton Hall (12 points, 11 rebounds).

It will be important for McGhee and Brown to repeat those performances in the future. However, one of the most important factors of the Pitt-Robert Morris contest will be the performance of the Panther guards while on defense.

Jermaine Dixon, Ashton Gibbs, and Brad Wanamaker will need a strong performance on the defensive end to combat not only Abraham, but also Mezie Nwigwe and Velton Jones. Together, the senior Nwigwe and the redshirt freshman Jones average a combined 17.2 points per game.