Less than a month ago, the Pitt men's basketball team saw its Big East schedule get off to a bumpy start when the Panthers dropped the conference opener at Villanova on January 6th. In that game, a turnover with 10 seconds to go cost Pitt the last-second shot, thereby ensuring the Wildcats' 64-63 victory.
But that doesn't mean Pitt (16-4, 4-3) is stuck with an 0-for-1 regular season record against Villanova (13-5, 3-4) in 2007-08, as the Wildcats are one of three Big East opponents the Panthers play twice this season, and the return match-up takes place tonight at the Petersen Events Center.
"We felt like we had them that last game…so we're pretty confident going into this game," redshirt freshman forward Gilbert Brown said this week.
The intrigue of the one-point loss on January 6th was compounded by a number of factors. In addition to the missed last-second scoring opportunity, the Panthers were also playing on the road against a quality opponent for the first time without starting point guard Levance Fields. Fields was injured two games earlier in the blowout loss to Dayton; in the meantime, Pitt had practiced its new lineup (absent Fields and senior guard Mike Cook) in a 96-75 win over Lafayette in Pittsburgh.
With the challenge of playing without Fields firmly upon them, the Panthers responded somewhat close to expectations in the first Villanova game: that is to say, Pitt struggled controlling the ball and committed a season-high 22 turnovers. The Wildcats were a natural fit to take advantage of Fields' absence, as Jay Wright's team is noted for its tendency to apply pressure.
"That was our first Big East game and our [second] game without Levance," Brown said Monday,
"so we had to get used to that, and I think that's what caused all the turnovers in that game. Since then, we haven't really had that many turnovers, so I don't think it will be an issue."
Brown is right: in the six games that have passed since Pitt and Villanova last met, the Panthers have not committed more than 13 turnovers in a game.
"I think that was an aberration in that game," Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said this week. "They do a 1-2-2 three-quarter-court press, but we didn't really turn it over in that; we turned it over more in the half-court stuff.
"But we've been good all year. That was a game that was a bit abnormal but we've been very good since. As bad as we were [in the 13-point loss to Rutgers], we only had 13 turnovers. So we've been good at it, considering not having your point guard and your wing."
Senior guard Ronald Ramon, who took over for Fields at the point and committed the turnover with 10 seconds left against Villanova, isn't dwelling on his five turnovers in that game.
"That game is behind us. We came out with no intensity, no energy. It was one of the first games that guys pressured us with the new lineup. But we got better [at avoiding turnovers]."
Now, three weeks later, both Pitt and Villanova are looking at tonight's game as a means to get back on the positive side of things. The Wildcats have been in a bit of a tailspin since beating the Panthers, losing three of five games, including their last two (at Rutgers and vs. Notre Dame). The Panthers, meanwhile, are coming off arguably the worst loss in the Petersen Events Center's rather short history, a 13-point blowout loss to Rutgers, previously known as the Big East's worst team.
Pitt players and coaches said this week that the in-house response to the Rutgers loss has been to step up the intensity in practice and workouts.
"Everybody came out with intensity [in practice on Monday]," Ramon said, "everybody was pushing each other, and everybody just made sure that everybody stepped up in a way that was not just about taking shots; making guys better in practice, that's what it's all about. We got away from that a little bit, and today everybody came out with intensity. We had a great practice, and we just have to keep going from there."
The Panthers will find out tonight if the added practice intensity had the desired effect when they take their second shot at Villanova.
Chris Peak can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org