Injuries and a lack of depth were pinpointed as the reasons for Pitt's descent from first to almost worst when the Panthers tumbled from Big East Conference champions to 13th place a year ago. The Panthers are off to another poor start in conference play and there are no excuses this time.
The Panthers are 0-2 in Big East play heading into a game Tuesday night at No. 15 Georgetown. And much like last season -- when the Panthers started 0-7 in conference play -- answers don't appear to be forthcoming.
There are signs that point toward it becoming another long season. Pitt's perimeter defense is below average. The Panthers are a poor rebounding team and they have a stagnant offense incapable of breaking down opposing defenses.
The first two losses should signal some alarm within the program. Cincinnati outscored the Panthers, 44-27, after halftime en route to a 70-61 victory at Petersen Events Center in the conference opener. Then Saturday, Rutgers jumped out to a 39-25 halftime lead on its way to a 67-62 victory.
Good teams don't get so thoroughly outplayed for 20 minutes at a time. The Panthers made some adjustments and climbed back into the game Saturday, but the second-half performance did not mask the problems. In the end, the same issues that plagued them in the first half surfaced again when the game was on the line.
One of the biggest problems is a backcourt that lacks the athleticism to defend opposing guards or create plays on the offensive end.
Dixon made a change in his starting lineup in hopes of sparking his team after the loss to Cincinnati, but the decision to start sophomore Cameron Wright in place of freshman James Robinson failed to provide any advantage. More lineup changes could be forthcoming.
"We have to find a way," Dixon said. "We have to get the right group. I know it's there. I believe we can be the team we want to be."
Dixon's options appear limited. He has only 10 available scholarship players after John Johnson and Malcolm Gilbert decided to transfer earlier in the season. Freshman Chris Jones is an 11th, but he is going to redshirt because the coaches do not believe he can help the team this season.
One of the 10 is junior guard Trey Zeigler, a transfer from Central Michigan who was expected to help stabilize the backcourt. But Zeigler has not played well and his minutes are shrinking as a result. Dixon played him just six minutes against Rutgers after witnessing more of the same mistakes he has been making all season.
The decision to start Wright was based on defense, but Rutgers sophomore Eli Carter scored 23 points and was the latest opposing guard to expose the defensive issues the Panthers have.
In the loss to Cincinnati, Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright combined for 34 points and continually penetrated past Pitt's guards. Carter and Myles Mack did the same no matter who was guarding them. From senior Tray Woodall to the freshman Robinson, nothing was working for the Panthers when it came to defending the Scarlet Knights.
"It's not one guy," Dixon said. "We have young guards other than Tray that need to understand. But it's not just them. It's across the board. You have to guard. To win on the road you have to hold a team under 40 percent. That's all we talked about and we didn't get it done."
Rutgers shot 51 percent and got many of those baskets after grabbing offensive rebounds. The Scarlet Knights had 12 offensive rebounds for second possessions, indicating the Panthers have big problems on the interior as well.
Rutgers outrebounded Pitt by 12 and the Panthers are now minus-17 on the boards after two conference games. The starting frontcourt of Steve Adams and Talib Zanna combined for five rebounds against Rutgers.
"I don't know what the problem is," Zanna said. "We have to keep trying."
Dixon took the blame for not having his players prepared to rebound better.
"The rebounding numbers are hard to comprehend," Dixon said. "We should be a good rebounding team and we're not. It's up to me. I have to get that changed. We're not rebounding like we should be."
The inability to rebound and the lack of an effective half-court post offense limits the Panthers and puts the pressure on the guards to make things happen. To this point, they have not demonstrated they are capable of carrying a team the way Cincinnati and Rutgers guards did against them.
The Panthers had plenty of opportunities to complete a comeback Saturday, but their guards could not come up with a play to turn the tide. Woodall, who was expected to lead the young group, had a turnover and a bad miss in the final minutes. He was 3 for 11 from the field against the Scarlet Knights and is 6 for 20 in the first two conference games.
Wright did not score in his first start this season and Robinson was ineffective, too, going 1 for 6 from the field. Robinson is 3 for 12 in two Big East games.
Rutgers sealed the victory when, clinging to a two-point lead, Carter took Robinson off the dribble, created an easy shot in the lane and scored for a four-point margin with 2:53 remaining.
On Pitt's next possession, the Panthers settled for two 3-point attempts. Robinson and Woodall missed.
Carter's play was exactly the type the Panthers don't appear capable of making, or stopping.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published January 7, 2013 5:00 AM