Marquette prolongs Pittsburgh’s baffling skid

MILWAUKEE — Frustrating doesn’t begin to describe Pittsburgh’s start to this Big East season.

One of the conference’s predominant programs for much of the last decade, Pitt is the league leader during that span in overall winning percentage (.787), league winning percentage (.721), consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances (10) and 20-victory, 10-league victory seasons (10).

A year ago, the Panthers won the Big East title — their fourth regular-season championship in the last 10 seasons — and landed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before being upset by Butler in the second round.

Things are a lot different these days.

A 62-57 loss Saturday afternoon to No. 25 Marquette left the Panthers 0-5 in league play for the first time since 1999-2000 and at 11-7 overall this season, surpassing the six losses they had all of last year.

Overall, the Panthers have lost six in a row, marking their longest losing streak since 1997-98. After dropping the final game of its nonconference season to Wagner, Pitt lost at Notre Dame by 13, at home to Cincinnati by three, at DePaul by three and at home to Rutgers by 23, scoring only 39 points. By comparison, Saturday’s loss to Marquette was far less jarring.

“We’re not used to this,” Panthers head coach Jamie Dixon said. “Call it what you will, obviously the losses are more than we ever had. Our kids are disappointed because they played hard, they played well, but we did not play well enough to win.”

Identifying the specific problem hasn’t been an easy task. Dixon can point to any number of issues — scoring, rebounding, decision-making — but the biggest problem, at least for the time being, is the Panthers’ penchant for turnovers. They had 17 Saturday.

“It’s been a couple different things,” Dixon said. “Turnovers have been a little bit of a problem. No question about that. We’ve tried to get better at it. That’s really cost us.”

Making things more difficult for Dixon is the absence of starting point guard Tray Woodall. He has missed the last 11 games with a strained groin, and the Panthers have missed him for more than his averages of 12.4 points and 7.5 assists.

He’s arguably Pitt’s best ballhandler, and without him, the pressure has fallen on Ashton Gibbs to carry the load. That was evident midway through the second half Saturday, when Marquette applied fullcourt pressure and started to take over.

Pittsburgh looked well on its way to snapping the streak in the first half, beating Marquette in just about every aspect of the game, but the Golden Eagles came out much more aggressive after the break and put the Panthers in early foul trouble. The switch to the press led to too many turnovers, and an inability to rebound down the stretch sealed the Panthers’ fate.

There were some bright spots despite the outcome. Freshman Isiah Epps looked good defensively, though he finished without any points. Gibbs recovered from an eight-point effort against Rutgers to finish with a game-high 29 on 8 of 16 shooting, including 4 of 8 on three-point attempts.

Dixon moved Gibbs off the point for stretches, allowing him better opportunities and his highest points total of the season.

“We got some sets that worked for him,” Dixon said. “But we’ve got to have some other guys hit some shots, too. We had a lot of open shots from other guys that obviously their numbers and what they’ve done lately has really caught up to us.”

The road doesn’t get much easier for Pittsburgh, which travels to upstate New York on Monday for a nationally televised game against top-ranked and unbeaten Syracuse.

The Panthers, though, insist they’re ready.

“We had a bad game today,” Epps said. “I think we’re going to do good when we play Syracuse.”