Talib Zanna, left, drives to the basket against Cincinnati's Cheikh Mbodj Monday in the Big East opener for both teams at Petersen Events Center.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt's players awoke Tuesday morning not feeling very well, but it had nothing do with their New Year's Eve. It had everything to do with what happened to them earlier in the day.
The 70-61 loss to Cincinnati in the Big East opener Monday afternoon left the Panthers feeling hungover because it was strikingly similar to the other loss No. 24 Pitt suffered earlier this season.
The Panthers now have two losses on their resume, and they will be staring at many more if they do not address some glaring problems that two strong opponents exposed in the two setbacks.
Pitt's two losses came against the only ranked opponents the Panthers have faced. No. 2 Michigan handed the Panthers a 67-62 loss in the N.I.T. Tip-Off tournament.
In each loss, the Panthers held a halftime lead before being badly outplayed after halftime. In the second halves of those games, Cincinnati and Michigan were able to seize on three Pitt weaknesses:
• The Wolverines and Bearcats outrebounded the Panthers. Michigan won the rebounding battle by 11. Cincinnati outrebounded Pitt by five, but the Bearcats had a plus-nine edge in the second half, which astounded Pitt coach Jamie Dixon because it was a low-possession game.
Pitt's centers combined for three rebounds in the second half. After grabbing eight rebounds in the first half, starter Steven Adams managed just one after halftime. Adams had zero points and one rebound against Michigan. He had zero points and nine rebounds against Cincinnati.
Although the statistics say Pitt is the top rebounding team in the Big East, the performances against the two best teams on the schedule so far say otherwise.
"Those are things we have to fix," junior forward Lamar Patterson said of the rebounding woes. "When it comes down to it, we have to get the things that determine a game."
• Michigan and Cincinnati had talented guards that took advantage of Pitt's inability to defend one-on-one on the perimeter. Michigan's guard duo of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined for 33 points and made a living at the free-throw line, where they combined to go 11 for 12.
Cincinnati was able to expose Pitt's perimeter defense, as well. The Bearcats went to the line 35 times and made 25 free throws. Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati's primary guards, scored 15 of their combined 34 points at the free-throw line.
Unable to defend Wright and Kilpatrick in one-on-one situations in the second half once Bearcats coach Mick Cronin was able to create the proper spacing, the Panthers were forced to foul because they did not have the ability to stay in front of the quicker and more athletic Cincinnati guards.
"Give credit to Cincinnati," Dixon said. "They knocked down shots and beat us off the dribble. It's disappointing in every way."
Michigan scored 38 points after halftime and Cincinnati 44 once they figured out how to isolate their guards.
• Michigan and Cincinnati limited Pitt's transition offense and forced the Panthers to play in the half-court, where they sometimes struggle to score for long periods.
Against Michigan, Pitt shot 52 percent in the first half en route to a four-point halftime lead. In the second half, the Panthers opened with only three baskets in the first 13 minutes, and the Wolverines stormed back to take the lead.
Against Cincinnati, Pitt shot 48 percent in the first half, but scored 11 points in the first 13 minutes after halftime. The Bearcats took advantage as the Wolverines did and surged ahead for a lead they did not relinquish.
Pitt senior Tray Woodall said after the game the Panthers should have taken the Bearcats off the dribble more rather than settling into the half-court offense. Dixon agreed with him.
"We were saying to attack," Dixon said. "We thought there were opportunities. We didn't seem to get as many [transition baskets] in the second half. I'm surprised by that because we were fresh. It shouldn't have been a fatigue issue down the stretch. We didn't get layups. We shot a much lower percentage. I was surprised by that."
More opponents with similar skill sets will be looking to expose the same weaknesses now that Big East play has begun. Games against ranked opponents will become more frequent. A date with No. 15 Georgetown is six days away and games against Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Cincinnati again are on the docket.
Even unranked teams in the Big East with quality guard play and interior toughness have the potential to give the Panthers problems.
"Cincinnati is a good team, but I think we're a better team than what we showed in the second half," Dixon said. "We'll have to get back to work and figure it out."
Game: Pitt at Rutgers, Piscataway, N.J.
When: 11 a.m. Saturday.
The skinny: Rutgers coach Mike Rice returns from a three-game suspension for tonight's game vs. No. 2 Syracuse.