When Pittsburgh rolled to an 12-1 start against a cupcake-heavy non-conference slate, it was hard to tell whether the Panthers' gaudy record and top 25 ranking was a product of improvement or a soft schedule.
The answer is clearer one week into Big East play, and it's not flattering for Jamie Dixon's team.
Pittsburgh lost 67-62 at Rutgers on Saturday, not a great loss even on the road considering the Scarlet Knights are likely to finish in the bottom third of the Big East. The Panthers now have dropped two straight after also losing their Big East opener at home against Cincinnati on Monday.
An 0-2 Big East record certainly isn't enough evidence to write off Pittsburgh as an NCAA tournament contender, but it is a poor start with the potential to snowball considering what lies ahead for the Panthers. Up next is a visit to 15th-ranked Georgetown and a home game against Marquette, with games against UConn, Louisville and Syracuse looming in the following three weeks.
The key for Pittsburgh will be preventing this season from following a similar arc to last year when the Panthers started 11-1 but crumbled as the schedule stiffened, dropping their first seven Big East games and staggering to a 5-13 league record. This year's Panthers are both more healthy and more talented than last year's version, yet they're also in jeopardy of digging themselves an early Big East hole.
What went wrong against Rutgers isn't tough to diagnose: Pittsburgh's offense was stagnant for long stretches, it was beaten on the glass and it struggled to keep Rutgers' speedy guards out of the lane.
Rutgers guard Eli Carter lit up the Panthers for 23 points, doing most of his damage either in the lane or from the free throw line. Pittsburgh shot only 37.5 percent, no surprise considering the Panthers relied mostly on a perimeter-oriented attack and received little spark from anyone besides J.J. Moore (14 points, 3 of 6 3-point shooting).
Were it not for Rutgers' generosity to start the second half, the Panthers may not have even been within striking distance late. Six of the Scarlet Knights' first seven possessions of the second half ended in turnovers and they scored only six points in the opening 12 minutes after halftime, enabling Pittsburgh to methodically whittle a 39-25 halftime deficit to three.
Nonetheless, Pittsburgh will head to Georgetown still in search of its first Big East win and still in search of its first resume win of the season.
The good news is plenty of opportunities for marquee wins loom on the schedule. The bad news is the Panthers will have to improve in all facets to take advantage.
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