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January 31, 2009

Basketball Preview: Notre Dame @ No. 3 Pittsburgh

Looking to break a four-game losing streak, Notre Dame (12-7, 3-5) will have to go through one of the most difficult routes to do it when they travel to Pittsburgh's Peterson Events Center to take on the No. 3-rated Panthers (18-2, 6-2), which is coming off a 10-point road loss to Villanova.

Tip-off is Saturday at noon ET.

Pittsburgh won its first 16 games of the season to ascend to the No. 1 spot in the nation before a road loss to Louisville snapped the streak. But the Panthers are 12-0 on their home court where they have been nearly unbeatable for the better part of the last decade.

Head coach Jamie Dixon (TCU '87) is in his sixth season at Pittsburgh after taking over for Ben Howland, who left to coach the Bruins of UCLA. Dixon has fashioned a sparkling 150-42 record as Howland's successor.

The Panthers are led by two standout frontline players, a steadying influence at point guard, and a talented supporting cast that was the nucleus of last year's 27-10 squad.

Six-foot-six junior Sam Young paces the Panthers in scoring with an 18.6-point average while snagging 5.7 rebounds per game. He forms a dynamic duo up front with 6-foot-7, 265-pound DeJuan Blair, who has become a Big East Player of the Year candidate in his sophomore season. Blair averages 14.3 points per game and 12.4 rebounds while shooting at a 59.2 percent clip.

"He's the total package, and a (Big East) player of the year candidate," said Irish head coach Mike Brey. "He's doing a little bit of everything."

Levance Fields, a 5-foot-10 senior who has overcome knee problems, keeps the Pittsburgh machine running. In addition to averaging 10.6 points per game, Fields is the caretaker of the basketball. In 20 games, he has 135 assists and just 40 turnovers. He averages 6.75 assists per game.

Rounding out the starting lineup are 6-foot-3 junior Jermaine Dixon (8.1 ppg.) and 6-foot-8, 240-pound senior Tyrell Biggs (7.8 ppg., 5.2 rpg.).

The bench features 6-foot-6 sophomore Gilbert Brown (5.8 ppg., 3.5 rpg.), 6-foot-4 sophomore Brad Wanamaker (5.3 ppg., 6.8 ppg. in Big East play), and 6-foot-2 freshman Ashton Gibbs (4.0 ppg.).

Pittsburgh leads the Big East in offensive rebounds at 15.0 per game.

"That's strength and size and pushing you under, and they've traditionally done it on free-throw situations too," said Irish head coach Mike Brey.

"The names have changed but the style of the bodies have been pretty similar since I've come here. It's something they've always done well. Even though they don't have great height, it's strength that has helped them offensive rebound like that."

The Panthers also rank second in the conference in rebounding margin (+7.1) and second in assists at 17.3 per game. Statistically, the Panthers generally rank among the top five in the Big East in most categories. The one eyesore is free-throw shooting. Pittsburgh stands 15th in the conference with a .606 mark.

When the Panthers fell to Louisville, they shot just 34.9 percent from the field. When they lost to Villanova, they missed 13-of-16 three-point attempts as Blair managed must seven points and eight rebounds.

But it's rare that the Panthers slip at home. In fact, Pittsburgh boasts a 108-10 record in the Peterson Events Center.

This is a monumental task for the Irish, one that they seem unequipped to handle under the circumstances. They've lost their last three on the road to St. John's, Louisville and Syracuse, and now they must enter one of the most difficult home venues in all of college basketball. Plus, they'll be playing a Pittsburgh team anxious for victory after an underachieving performance at Villanova Wednesday night.

The Irish will snap out of this tailspin at some point during the Big East season. But this doesn't seem to be the day or the place. Luke Harangody can't do it alone up front, and no one has been willing/able to step forward and relieve his burden. Pittsburgh and its burly front line is an unlikely group to have a breakout performance against on the road.

Pointspread: Pittsburgh by 12
Prister's Prediction: Pittsburgh 79, Notre Dame 70
Season record: 13-6 overall; 5-7 vs. points



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