'Must-win' arrives early for Panthers

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It still would be possible for Pitt to qualify for the NCAA tournament this season if the Panthers lose at DePaul tonight. After all, teams are not mathematically eliminated from contention in the first week of January.

It's just much more plausible to imagine a scenario in which the Panthers turn their season around by winning the game against the traditionally hapless Blue Demons.

"It's definitely a must-win," senior forward Nasir Robinson said. "We're going to go out there hungry and try to get this thing back on track, back to playing Pitt basketball and winning."

Pitt is 0-2 in the Big East for the first time in more than a decade after dropping games to Notre Dame and Cincinnati. While it's unfamiliar territory for the Panthers, other conference teams have overcome bad starts in recent years and managed to make the NCAA tournament.

Georgetown lost three of its first four last season and finished 10-8 in the conference. The Hoyas earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. Two years ago, Marquette started the season 2-5 and rebounded to finish 11-7 in league play. The Golden Eagles earned a No. 11 seed.

If the Panthers are going to add to their 10-year NCAA tournament streak, it would be a good idea to beat DePaul, by far the Big East's worst program since the 2008-09 season with a conference record of 2-53. The Blue Demons (9-4 overall) are 0-1 this season, losing their Big East opener to Syracuse by 19 last week.

Over the next week the Panthers have an opportunity to get back to even footing if they can clean up their turnover issues and begin making some outside shots. After DePaul they play host to Rutgers before three consecutive games against ranked teams, including road games at No. 20 Marquette and No. 1 Syracuse in a three-day span and a home game with No. 11 Louisville.

Considering the stretch after Rutgers, Robinson's belief that tonight's game is a must-win is not all that far-fetched.

"I know a lot of people are doubting that we'll make the tournament," sophomore forward J.J. Moore said. "In our eyes, we know we'll play hard and make the tournament. We're together. As a team, we're all in. We just have to go out there and show it on the court."

DePaul is 0-18, 1-17 and 1-17 the past three seasons in Big East play, but there are indications that this team could be different. The Blue Demons have won nine games overall, which is two more than they won all last season.

The Blue Demons are not very good defensively, which might be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Panthers, who have not scored more than 63 points in their past three games. But under coach Oliver Purnell, DePaul is a high-energy pressing team that thrives on forcing turnovers, something the Panthers have struggled with in recent games without point guard Tray Woodall in the lineup.

The Panthers committed 17 turnovers against Cincinnati, which pressed for much of the game Sunday night.

"They're pressing a lot," Robinson said. "They'll press just like Cincinnati did. They have some good guards. We know they'll play hard and try to get into us like these other teams have.

"They have more confidence. Any team we play, they'll try to get into us and try to play aggressive. We just have to play aggressive and want it more."

Purnell has built his team around two of the best sophomores in the league. Forward Cleveland Melvin (18.8 ppg) was the Big East rookie of the year last season and guard Brandon Young (16.1 ppg) made the league's all-rookie team.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said the key to the game is handling DePaul's press. The Panthers cannot afford many turnovers against the press, but they have to be able to hurt the gambling Blue Demons with baskets on the other end.

"Our confidence is definitely still there," Moore said. "We just have to pick it up and play as a team."

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published January 5, 2012 5:00 AM


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