Just over a week after their first loss of the season to Louisville, the Pittsburgh Panthers will travel to Philadelphia to face Villanova at the Wachovia Spectrum. The game will be important to each team’s tournament résumé come March, and is expected to be a hard-fought battle. Pittsburgh has gotten off to a fantastic start and is No. 4 in the nation.
The Panthers’ starting five is a solid unit, run by junior point guard Jermaine Dixon and led in scoring by senior forward Sam Young (18.4 ppg) and sophomore forward DeJuan Blair (14.3 ppg). The other starters, senior guard Levance Fields and senior forward Tyrell Biggs, are both solid players who each average over 8 points per game. Pitt’s main strength, however, lies in its rebounding ability. Blair, who averages well over a double-double with 12.8 rebounds per game, puts the Panthers first in the Big East in offensive rebounding and second in the conference on the defensive end, behind only Hasheem Thabeet and Connecticut. They also lead the conference in rebounding margin, averaging nearly ten rebounds per game more than their opponents. The ability of the smaller Villanova team to limit Pitt’s second chance opportunities from offensive rebounds and to keep inside scorers such as Blair and Young in check will be key factors in the game’s outcome.
After winning their first 16 games of the season and earning the No. 1 ranking, the Panthers’ weaknesses were not apparent. However, in their loss to Louisville, one weakness became clear. If the starters are unable to stay in the game, the bench players are not always able to produce points in their absence. Coach Jamie Dixon was forced to keep Blair on the bench with four fouls during crucial minutes of the second half of the Louisville game – minutes during which Louisville went on a run that brought it back from a double-digit deficit and continued to give it the lead for good. If the quicker Villanova guards can drive and draw fouls from starters such as Blair and Young, they can delve into the Pitt bench and give themselves a better shot at the upset.
Who to Watch
Despite being the youngest of the Pitt starters, Blair’s combination of scoring, rebounding and defensive shot blocking makes him the single most pivotal player on the team. Therefore, look for Villanova’s ability to contain him to be a major factor in the contest.
What to Watch For
With Blair so crucial to Pitt’s performance and senior Dante Cunningham leading Villanova in scoring (17.4 ppg) and rebounding (7.4 rpg), the matchup between the two forwards is expected to be exciting. If Cunningham can use his jump shot to pull Blair away from the basket, he can not only score points of his own but also open up opportunities for teammates. Cunningham will be depended on to keep Blair off the offensive boards, a responsibility that will be a key factor in whether or not the Wildcats can keep up with the Panthers.
Pittsburgh 77, Villanova 74