Pitt senior Jermaine Dixon has a theory on the Panthers' recent struggles. He said when the team began their ascension in the national rankings their level of play began to deteriorate.
From unranked and unknown to a top-10 team in the span of three weeks, Dixon said the Panthers did not handle success well.
"With this ranking there are a lot of new guys who aren't used to that and the [publicity] we're getting," Dixon said after Pitt's 64-61 loss Sunday at Seton Hall, the second consecutive loss for the Panthers. "Maybe people are letting it go to their heads. I have to be more vocal. I definitely have to say a lot more, kind of like Levance [Fields] did."
Before Big East Conference play commenced, Pitt was well off the national radar because of the bad loss Dec. 8 to unranked Indiana. But after the Panthers defeated No. 5 Syracuse Jan. 2 they cracked the top 25 for the first time, debuting at No. 23. After they beat Cincinnati they moved higher to No. 16. And then, after a nationally televised victory at Connecticut and another win against Louisville, they moved into the top 10 at No. 9.
Monday, on the heels consecutive losses to Georgetown and Seton Hall, the Panthers fell to No. 17 in the polls.
Dixon said the Panthers have to get back to playing well on defense in order to turn things around.
"Ever since we got ranked higher our defense has been worse," he said. "We just have to pick it up on defense. I'm going to make sure I'm going to let everyone know what we're doing wrong. It's one thing to hear it from a coach. If you hear it from a player then people take things different. I'm going to start being more vocal. I'm going to say a lot more when we're on the court practicing."
The loss to Seton Hall came four days after a 74-66 home loss to Georgetown. Seton Hall became the sixth consecutive opponent to shoot 44 percent or better from the field. The Pirates shot 44.6 percent, 48 percent in the second half. They did that with their leading scorer only playing 16 minutes. Jeremy Hazell was in foul trouble most of the game and only contributed nine points.
Pitt's interior defense was exposed for the second time in three games. Seton Hall forward Herb Pope scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Jeff Robinson, another forward, contributed 15 points. When Pitt beat Louisville Jan. 16, Cardinals center Samardo Samuels had 25 points.
Pope, who was 8 for 12 from the field, made it look easy against the Panthers.
"He definitely got a lot of easy buckets," Dixon said. "That's one thing Coach said to us after the game. He'll tell us how many at our next practice. Georgetown had 19 uncontested layups. That's something we have to do a better job of."
Coach Jamie Dixon concurs that defense is at the root of the team's problems. The offense struggled mightily against Seton Hall as the Panthers connected on only 35 percent of their field-goal attempts, but Dixon made it known afterward that the defense has to improve first and foremost.
"We haven't taken the strides I want defensively," he said. "The offense will have its ups and downs. We have some improvements to make. There's no question. We haven't improved. I thought we would have executed better [Sunday], but we didn't."
Dixon said he might begin to give more minutes to his reserves. Ashton Gibbs, Pitt's leading scorer, played 39 of 40 minutes against Seton Hall and has not played fewer than 35 minutes in any Big East game. Brad Wanamaker played 37 minutes against the Pirates and Jermaine Dixon 34.
The only question is which players Dixon will ask to take on more minutes. Redshirt freshman Travon Woodall has not played well lately. He committed two turnovers in six minutes against Seton Hall. He turned the ball over three times in eight minutes against Louisville.
When Dixon benched Woodall he turned to senior transfer Chase Adams, who has only played 10 minutes in the first seven conference games.
The only reserve who has made a consistent impact has been Gilbert Brown. Jamie Dixon sounded as if some changes might be forthcoming when the Panthers play host Thursday to St. John's at Petersen Events Center.
"We probably should have played guys more minutes," he said. "That may have something to do with it as well. That's my responsibility. We have to address a couple of different things."
• Game: St. John's (12-7, 2-5 Big East) vs. No. 17 Pitt (15-4, 5-2).
• When: 7 p.m. Thursday.
• Where: Petersen Events Center.
• TV: ESPNU.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or 412-263-1230. First Published January 26, 2010 5:00 AM