Men’s Basketball: Pitt aims to bounce back at Miami


By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

The Pitt men’s basketball team has gone cold, but not because of the city’s frigid weather. 

The Panthers are still clinging to a spot in the Associated Press top-25 poll, but are now in the midst of the team’s first losing spell of the season.

The No. 25 Pitt Panthers are looking to heat up the south in tonight’s matchup with the Miami Hurricanes at 7 p.m. at BankUnited Center.

Hurricanes head coach Jim Larranaga dished praise to the Panthers after Miami’s win Saturday over Norfolk State.

“We’re gonna work very hard on a our defense and rebounding ‘cause we know how good Pitt is,” Larranaga said. “They’re one of toughest man-to-man defensive teams in the league. They’re also very tough offensively. They just got a really great team.” 

Then Larranaga, speaking the day before Pitt faced Virginia, looked ahead.

“They’re very deserving of their top-20 ranking. I think they’ll have a great game against Virginia,” he said.

The result certainly wasn’t great for Pitt (18-4, 6-3 ACC), which lost to No. 11 Duke and No. 20 Virginia last week. Both defeats happened at the Petersen Events Center in different fashions. 

The Blue Devils gradually pulled away from the Panthers en route to a 15-point win, whereas, the Cavaliers relied on a last-second 3-pointer by Malcolm Brogdon to snatch a tough road win. Pitt’s home losing streak is the first time the Panthers have lost back-to-back games at the Petersen Events Center since losses to West Virginia and South Florida in 2012.

Despite the tough week, Pitt is still tied for third place in the conference with Duke. 

On a more promising note, Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon was pleased with the efforts of some of his youngest players who haven’t experienced significant adversity on the court since beginning their college careers.

“I thought Mike [Young] and Jamel [Artis] played well and are continuing to get better and improve,” Dixon said Sunday. “I thought Josh [Newkirk] gave us good minutes, and I thought Chris [Jones] did some good things, too.”

Artis led the way in the class, coming off a career-best 11-point performance against the Cavaliers, but Dixon said he saw each youngster progress and is ready to move on.

“Four freshman played well, and we just have to get out and get ready for Miami,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Coral Gables, Fla., Miami (11-10, 2-6 ACC) resides close to the conference’s basement. The Hurricanes enter tonight’s game with a three-game ACC losing streak after falling to Duke, Syracuse and Maryland.

Miami received a brief respite from the challenges of ACC play this past weekend, though, as Norfolk State visited the BankUnited Center, and the Hurricanes won with a final score of 64-49.

Essentially the only returning contributor from a team that went to the Sweet Sixteen in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, senior guard Rion Brown leads the way for the Hurricanes. After Larranaga lost his top six scorers from a year ago, Brown returned as the leader at 6.4 points per game. 

This season, Brown, the 6-foot-6, 211-pound guard from Hinesville, Ga., is Larranaga’s top weapon, scoring 14 points per game. He also ranks among the team’s leading rebounders, pulling down 6.2 boards per game. 

Opposite Brown, Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon needs redshirt senior forward Lamar Patterson to break out of the mini slump he’s found himself in throughout the past two games. Against Duke and Virginia combined, Patterson shot 7-of-28 from the field and scored 24 points. 

Dixon said Patterson’s low offensive output could simply be credited to a combination of the Panthers — a defensive-minded team in its own right — having to face two stingy defenses.

“[The opponents are] going to work the clock and use the clock,” he said. “That will result in a low-possession game. Obviously, the numbers are going to be lower, just the number of times you’re going to have the ball.”

But Dixon also added that Patterson didn’t help himself out, either.

“[Patterson] got into some foul trouble today, and that’s going to affect anybody’s game,” he said.

On the season, Patterson is still shooting 48.5 percent and averaging a team-best 17.4 points per game next to 4.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Patterson’s play thus far has earned him three ACC Player of the Week nods. 

Talib Zanna flanks Patterson from the frontcourt, where he leads the team in rebounding at 7.8 per game. Zanna, who hails from Kaduna, Nigeria, is also Pitt’s second-leading scorer at 12.9 points per game and is shooting a superb 59.9 percent from the field this season.

But Zanna temporarily left Pitt’s loss Sunday to Virginia early in the first half after hobbling to the floor with a twisted ankle. The redshirt senior center returned with under four minutes left in the first after having his ankle taped.

Although he returned, he was ineffective in 16 second-half minutes and scored a season-low two points across a total of 29 minutes.

Dixon couldn’t say for sure if Zanna would be bothered by his ankle after Sunday, but noticed that his performance declined.

“He seemed to be limping the entire time I was watching him play, but he said he was fine,” he said after the loss Sunday. “He certainly didn’t look as explosive. It was hard to figure out if it was advantageous to have him in there or not.”

Without Zanna, more scoring responsibility falls on Cameron Wright, the only other Panther averaging double-digit scoring at 10.7 points per game. 

Garrius Adams and Donnavan Kirk support Rion Brown on the Hurricanes’ side, each averaging nearly 10 points per game. Kirk leads Miami in rebounding at 6.3 boards per game, while Adams is Larranaga’s leading passer with 2.9 assists per game. 

Miami is 5-6 at home, while the Panthers hold a 3-1 record on the road this season, with the only loss coming by five points at No. 1 Syracuse.

A road trip might not present a challenge for Pitt, but the lingering of two tough losses left Dixon with much to be desired of his team’s performance heading into tonight’s contest.

“I want to focus on what we’re doing defensively and where we can improve … [We’re] trying hard, and it doesn’t always come right away,” he said. “That’s what part of improving is. You wish it happens overnight, but it doesn’t. You just have to keep trying to improve.”