For a team that is averaging nearly 80 points per game and is at or near the top of the Big East Conference in every meaningful offensive statistical category, Pitt has the strange problem of being shut down for long stretches in some games.
The same team that can score 19 points in the first 7:48 to open the game against third-ranked Syracuse can promptly go the next 7:36 without a point. The unusual way the Syracuse game unfolded drew attention to the problem, which has been an ongoing issue with the team for the first six Big East games.
Scoring problems have surfaced in three of the first six league games. The Panthers went scoreless for 7:34 during a stretch in the first half of a win against Providence. In a victory at Georgetown, the Panthers made one basket in the final 12:02. At one point during that 12-minute stretch, they went scoreless for 4:27.
"Just watching film, we've had a lot of mental lapses," senior guard Brad Wanamaker said. "We've had some times when we kind of stopped going at the other team. It seemed like we were trying to catch a break on offense and defense sometimes. Maybe some guys were tired, maybe not. But that's something we have to learn from. We have to learn when we have a good lead to keep building on it."
The Panthers' scoring droughts have not yet cost them. Syracuse and Georgetown could not take advantage of the lapses and never held a lead at any point in those games. Providence did storm back to take a late lead, but the Panthers were able to get some key baskets down the stretch, including a clutch 3-pointer from Travon Woodall to win that game in the final minute.
When the shots are not falling for the Panthers, the players haven't panicked. Junior guard Ashton Gibbs said that is the reason the Panthers remain the only undefeated team in the Big East.
"The fact that we're an experienced team has helped us," Gibbs said. "We don't get rattled in tough situations. Whether it was the Providence game on the road or the Georgetown game that was on the road or Syracuse, I think it was the experience that helps."
Gibbs is not worried about the team's sometimes uneven scoring patterns.
"I don't think it's a concern," he said. "I think every team has their run. Every team has their streak they go on. If we play defense, no matter how bad we shoot, we'll still be in the game. We just have to keep it going, keep being confident in the shots we get, keep being unselfish and we'll be fine."
Part of the reason Pitt can go long stretches without scoring is the fact that this team is built differently from most previous Pitt teams. Gibbs, the team's top scorer, is a 3-point specialist. The second- and third-leading scorers also are guards, and if they all go cold at the same time, it can cause the offense to sputter.
Wanamaker indicated that the team has to do a better job of recognizing when it needs to drive to the hoop for a score or get fouled instead of settling for jump shots.
"It's just knowing what to do on that possession, getting to the line, getting a layup, something to get us going," Wanamaker said. "We can't live on jump shots all game. If jump shots are falling, keep shooting. But at some point, you have to get to the line or get to the lane and make some layups."
Assistant coach Pat Skerry offered one other explanation for the scoring drought against Syracuse. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is coaching an NCAA title contender, and he has his team playing great defense.
"There definitely are coaching points," Skerry said. "One thing that coach [Jamie Dixon] drills is the extra pass and unselfishness. The other thing is Syracuse is pretty good. At some point, they were going to come back. Maybe we got away from a couple of things we do, but we corrected that pretty well. We were playing against a zone, and we didn't take a lot of 3-point shots. We worked the ball around and got it inside. He's harped on that."
NOTE -- Dixon did not attend practice Thursday because of illness. He is expected to return today and travel with the team to Chicago for the DePaul game Saturday afternoon. Dixon has been battling an illness for more than a week, but Thursday was the first practice he missed during that time.
"The fact that we're an experienced team has helped us. We don't get rattled in tough situations."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.