Pittsburgh has won its first seven games of the season, but hasn’t yet hit the road. Its first contest in an opposing gym won’t even be outside of city limits.
The 12th-ranked Panthers look for their sixth consecutive 8-0 start when they travel less than three miles down the road to face longtime rival Duquesne on Wednesday.
Pitt and Duquesne (6-1) first met in 1932, and the series has recently belonged to the Panthers. Pitt has won the last six matchups by an average of 17.0 points and 25 of the past 28 meetings to take a 44-31 lead in the overall series.
“It’s very exciting for the city, but we just look at it as another challenging game on our schedule,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.
The Panthers are college basketball’s fifth-winningest program since the 2001-02 season, when then current win streak against Duquesne began. They’ve gotten used to compiling quick starts to the season but have yet to advance past the regional semifinals in the NCAA tournament despite reaching that round four times since 2002.
The template has been the same so far in 2007-08 with Pitt winning its first seven by an average of 30.3 points. But though it has yet to face a ranked opponent, expectations have risen, largely due to the emergence of junior forward Sam Young.
Young, one of the school’s most touted recruits prior to his freshman season in 2005-06, averaged 7.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in his first season, but his numbers dropped off last season to just 7.2 and 3.0, respectively.
He’s been on a tear in 2007-08, however, scoring 18.0 points and grabbing 9.0 rebounds, both team highs. He was named the Big East player of the week on Nov. 19 and has three double-doubles, including a 17-point, 12-rebound effort in Pitt’s 78-52 win over Toledo on Saturday.
“We maybe were a little bit sluggish at they start and they definitely came in ready to play,” Young said. “Going up against a ranked team I’m sure they saw this as a chance to make a name for themselves. We were able to weather the storm early though, get back to playing our kind of basketball and make sure that didn’t happen.”
The game was tied at 27 late in the first half, but Pitt went on a 7-1 run to lead by six at the break, then outscored the Rockets by 20 in the second half. Star freshman DeJuan Blair was a major reason why. He didn’t start for the first time because he was serving as a pallbearer at his grandfather’s funeral, but after entering the game midway through the first half, he contributed 11 points, 11 rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists.
“DeJuan’s maturity showed. He couldn’t have handled today any better than he did,” Dixon said. “It was good for him to be at the funeral. He was there for his family. … Then he was there for his teammates.”
Blair is averaging 10.3 points and 8.3 rebounds, and leads the team with 2.3 steals per game.
The emergence of Blair and Young has helped offset the struggles of Pitt’s leading returning scorers, as guards Mike Cook, Levance Fields and Ronald Ramon have seen their averages and shooting percentages drop from last season.
Duquesne may be in position to give Pitt more of a test than it has in recent seasons. The Dukes won their first six games - something they hadn’t done in 28 years - by an average of 29.3 points before losing 77-73 at Drake on Saturday. Duquesne turned the ball over 24 times in the defeat.
“Our biggest Achilles’ heel was the turnovers,” Dukes coach Ron Everhart said. “That just can’t happen.”
Duquesne is among the top 5 teams in the nation with 92.3 points per game and is led by junior guard Kojo Mensah’s 16.4 a contest.
The Dukes enter their annual game against Pitt with a winning record for the first time since Dec. 18, 1993.