Robert Morris-Pittsburgh Preview

Pittsburgh has been bringing Khem Birch along slowly, but the

freshman may be blossoming quicker than the Panthers

anticipated.

Birch and the 17th-ranked Panthers will host Robert Morris on

Sunday night, trying to improve to 30-0 all-time against the

Colonials.

Pitt cruised to one of its easier wins of the season Friday,

beating Penn 78-58. The Panthers (4-1) were coming off a four-point

win over La Salle on Tuesday following their loss to Long Beach

State on Nov. 16.

Senior guard Ashton Gibbs scored a team-high 16 points while

Birch added 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots.

Birch, starting in place of center Dante Taylor (migraine), had

totaled eight points in 39 minutes over the first four games. He

scored 14 on Friday in the second half alone, and wound up playing

28 minutes.

“As the game went on, I got into a flow,” he said.

Birch, a McDonald’s All-American, is expected to become a key

part of Pittsburgh’s offense, but had been playing limited minutes

as he adjusted to the college game.

“He’s got a good feel, so there’s things that you can grow with

and build with,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “That’s something you

can’t teach.”

Birch’s increased role came after Taylor took a hit to the head

in the Panthers’ victory over LaSalle. Taylor’s status for Sunday

is uncertain.

Even if Taylor returns, significant minutes from Birch will

likely be necessary with starting forward Lamar Patterson

completing a two-game suspension handed down by Dixon for

disciplinary reasons. Patterson is averaging 7.5 points, 6.0

rebounds, 4.8 assists and 25.0 minutes per game.

J.J. Moore started in Patterson’s place Friday and finished with

12 points and six rebounds.

Pitt has been outrebounded in two of its last three games and

the improvement of its inside game could open things up more for

Gibbs, who is averaging 19.0 points but shooting 38.5 percent. He

did connect on 4 of 6 3-point attempts Friday.

As part of the Philly Hoop Group Classic, the Panthers have

shared three opponents with Robert Morris (4-1), which has won two

straight since losing to the Quakers on Nov. 19. The Colonials

defeated La Salle 51-44 on Friday despite shooting 28.0

percent.

Robert Morris outscored the Explorers 23-11 at the free-throw

line and had a 45-30 advantage on the boards, grabbing 15 offensive

rebounds. Junior guard Velton Jones scored 14 points and Russell

Johnson added 12.

Robert Morris is shooting 41.9 percent this season, but is

holding opponents to 40.5 percent. Jones leads the team with 19.4

points per game.

Pittsburgh is 29-0 against Robert Morris, winning the last 11 by

an average of 23.5 points. Gibbs scored 20 points in the Panthers’

74-53 victory last November. Jones shot 3 of 13 and finished with

seven points.