Pitt's games against Louisville and Syracuse this week appeared to be the most difficult two-game stretch of the season for the Panthers. But that was last week, before Louisville had lost three consecutive games and Syracuse dropped its first conference game of the season.
It still could turn out that way, but the ebbs and flows of the college basketball season cast a different light on the games against the Cardinals and Orange. Going into Pitt's game tonight against Louisville at KFC Yum! Center in Kentucky, the Panthers (17-4, 5-3) are ahead of the Cardinals (16-4, 4-3) by a half-game in the Big East Conference standings.
Two weeks ago, Louisville was the No. 1 team in the polls. Then the Cardinals lost to Syracuse on their home floor and followed that up with road losses at Villanova and at Georgetown.
After winning their first four Big East games by an average of 18.5 points per game, the Cardinals have dropped three close games in the past nine days. The losses to Syracuse and Georgetown each were by two points and the Villanova game was closer than the final nine-point margin indicated. The score was tied with three minutes remaining.
Syracuse likely will remain in the Top 10 and Louisville in the Top 15 when the new polls are unveiled today. For the Panthers, the games still figure to measure how far they have come after their slow start to conference play. They are 1-3 in games against teams in the Top 25 this season, with the only victory coming at Georgetown when the Hoyas were ranked earlier this month.
"They're definitely two tests," Pitt senior Tray Woodall said. "We said that in the locker room [after a victory against DePaul]. We have 10 guys who go out and compete with the best of them. We just have to go out there and execute."
Pitt's only other game against a team considered to be among Division I's elite came the day after Thanksgiving when the Panthers dropped a 67-62 decision to Michigan, which might be the No. 1 team in the polls today.
Matchup: Pitt (17-4, 5-3 Big East) vs. Louisville (16-4, 4-3), 7 p.m. today, KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Ky.
TV, Radio, Internet: ESPN, KDKA-FM (93.7), www.pittsburghpanthers.com.
Pitt: Extended winning streak to four with a 93-55 victory Saturday against DePaul. ... Has lost four of past five against Louisville, including a 57-54 loss a year ago in Kentucky. ... Junior F Lamar Patterson (10.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg) is averaging 14.6 points in the past five games and is shooting 55 percent (23 for 42) from the field in that span. ... Senior G Tray Woodall (10.5 ppg, 5.8 apg) has 22 assists in the past three games. ... Freshman C Steven Adams (6.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg) has 29 points and 29 rebounds in the four-game winning streak.
Louisville: Lost Saturday at Georgetown, 53-51. ... Has lost three consecutive games for the first time since January 2010. ... Russ Smith (18.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg) did not start at Georgetown. ... G Peyton Siva (11 ppg, 5.8 apg) was held scoreless for the first time since his freshman year against the Hoyas.
Hidden stat: Since Louisville joined the Big East Conference in 2005-06, the Cardinals and Panthers have played 11 times, with eight of the games being decided by six points or fewer.
The Panthers are a much different team now. Reserves Trey Zeigler and Durand Johnson have matured into prominent roles in the rotation. Johnson played 10 minutes in the matchup against the Wolverines and Zeigler nine. Neither was much of a factor.
In Pitt's four-game winning streak, Zeigler is averaging 11.2 points per game, the second most on the team behind Lamar Patterson in that span. Johnson has struggled in recent games (he had six turnovers against DePaul), but he scored in double figures in consecutive games against Marquette and Villanova two weeks ago.
"Everybody has settled into their roles," Woodall said. "Guys are more comfortable out there playing. We really are better, but we can talk about it all we want, we have to go out there and prove it."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino has been trying to find the right mix to get his team back on track. At Georgetown, he removed leading scorer Russ Smith (18.4 ppg) from the starting lineup for the third time this season. Smith did not play particularly well off the bench (12 points in 29 minutes), but Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal he planned to continue to start Luke Hancock and play Smith off the bench.
Another issue for the Cardinals in the losing skid has been the play of senior point guard Peyton Siva, who was held scoreless against Georgetown after getting into early foul trouble. In the loss to Syracuse, Siva was 1 for 9 from the field and scored three points.
Pitt, meanwhile, has been finding ways to win games. The Panthers blew out DePaul Saturday by 38 points, but they won three close games against Providence, Connecticut and Villanova before that. Their only loss in the past six games came against Marquette at home in overtime.
"I know we're playing better," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We're probably the one team with four new guys playing significant minutes. We're just trying to get better. We're a better team than we were a couple of weeks ago and that's what you want to be. You'll have challenges and setbacks and you have to fight through those."
The one area the Panthers have to shore up before tipoff tonight is turnovers. They did a poor job of handling the DePaul press and committed a season-high 18 turnovers. They committed 14 turnovers at Providence, another pressing team, and have had problems against the Louisville press in previous seasons.
"Hopefully, we got them all out of our system [Saturday]," Woodall said after the DePaul game.
Most of the turnovers came when the ball was not in the hands of Dixon's primary ballhandlers. In addition to Johnson's six turnovers, Zeigler had four and Patterson three against the Blue Demons.
Point guard James Robinson had one and Woodall two. Dixon's best bet is to keep the ball in their hands, but it's easier said than done against the pressure the Cardinals impose.
Louisville leads the Big East in steals and opposing teams average 19.5 turnovers per game.
"If we're going to point to something we should have done better it would be turnovers," Dixon said. "We came in as one of the lowest turnover teams in the country. We had too many and that's something we have to be prepared for. We've got to be able to play through the press. We had some unforced turnovers. We've got to recognize that."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1.