SC State-Pittsburgh Preview

Pittsburgh has the nation’s top rebounding differential after

overwhelming its last four opponents on the boards.

It’ll no longer have one of its promising young big men to keep

that trend going.

The 15th-ranked Panthers look to extend their winning streak to

eight when they host South Carolina State on Saturday, a day after

highly touted recruit Khem Birch left the program.

Pitt (9-1) came into the season having won 48 of its last 52

non-conference regular season games, and added two more to that

total before a stunning 86-76 loss to Long Beach State on Nov.

16.

The Panthers haven’t lost since, and much of the credit for

their seven-game winning streak can be attributed to an ability to

control the paint. Pittsburgh leads the nation in rebounding margin

(13.0), including a whopping 19.2 per-game edge during its last

four contests.

“It is what we do,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “It is ingrained in

our program. We recruit guys with a nose for the ball.”

Sophomore Lamar Patterson is proving he fits that description.

One of five Panthers averaging at least 5.0 rebounds, the 6-foot-5

Patterson pulled down a career-high 10 in last Saturday’s 74-68 win

over Oklahoma State, to go along with 12 points and seven

assists.

“We have a rebounding drill in practice where we throw each

other around pretty good,” said senior forward Nasir Robinson,

averaging 16.7 points and 10.7 boards in Pitt’s last three games.

“We just go out and rebound and everything else takes care of

itself.”

The Panthers, however, could need Patterson and Robinson to step

it up even more now that Birch is gone. Only the second McDonald’s

All-American recruited by Dixon, Birch opted Friday to leave the

team for personal reasons.

Birch, thought to be mulling a transfer, averaged 4.4 points,

5.0 boards and a team-high 1.9 blocks in 15 minutes a game.

Even with Birch gone, the Panthers should have little trouble

taking care of business in a three-game stretch that precedes their

Dec. 27 Big East opener at Notre Dame. Following Saturday’s visit

from South Carolina State (4-6), Pitt hosts St. Francis (PA) and

Wagner before a three-day Christmas break. None of those opponents

rank among the top 150 in Division I in rebounding

differential.

The Bulldogs have lost four in a row following a 4-2 start, and

if their last two games are any indication, the Panthers should

have plenty of chances for defensive rebounds. The Bulldogs shot

37.8 percent in those defeats, getting edged 42-29 on the boards in

last Saturday’s 87-57 loss at Gardner-Webb – a team they beat three

weeks earlier.

SCSU’s offense relies largely on senior guard Brandon Riley, who

averages a team-high 20.9 points but was held to nine Saturday and

committed five turnovers.

Riley struggled considerably in his first look at a ranked

opponent this season as well. He had 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting

and nine turnovers in a 70-50 loss at then-No. 9 Baylor on Nov.

22.

For a team known largely for its defense under Dixon, though,

Pitt hasn’t been causing many turnovers this season. The Panthers

are forcing just 9.8 per game – 336th out of 339 Division I

teams.

They’re only giving it away 12.2 times per game themselves,

though. Preseason Big East player of the year Ashton Gibbs had 17

points and one turnover last Saturday against the Cowboys.

“Gibbs just controls the basketball game. He is a very

impressive player,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “All

they say about him is true. There is a great pace to his game.”

Gibbs is averaging 18.7 points to rank sixth in the Big

East.

Pitt has never faced the Bulldogs but is 20-0 all-time versus

MEAC opponents.