After Pittsburgh lost two members of its backcourt to serious injuries, the team was expected to falter. Keith Benjamin has done everything he can to make sure that’s not the case.
Benjamin and the No. 20 Panthers (13-2, 1-1 Big East) will try to open their conference home schedule with a win on Saturday when they host Seton Hall.
Senior Mike Cook is out for the season after tearing his ACL in Pittsburgh’s 65-64 overtime win over Duke on Dec. 20, and junior Levance Fields will miss 8-to-12 weeks after fracturing his left foot in the Panthers’ 80-55 loss at Dayton on Dec. 29.
But Benjamin, a senior who had only started four games in his career, has stepped up with two of the team’s top four scorers sidelined. He’s averaged 18.3 points in his three starts since Fields was injured, and has scored 20 twice in three games - the first times he’s ever scored more than 17.
He had 20 on 8-of-12 shooting - including 3-of-5 from 3-point range - in Pitt’s 79-66 win at South Florida on Wednesday, and as far as Benjamin is concerned, the Panthers are still a team capable of great things.
“I hate when people talk and say that we can’t do something as a team. I feel that we’re still one of the best teams in the country, no matter what we lose,” Benjamin said. “We lost something great, but I still feel that we’re going to do something special this year because we stick together, we play hard and we play tough all day.”
Pitt has been in good hands with its starting frontcourt all season thanks to Sam Young and DeJuan Blair.
Young, a junior forward, has increased his scoring average from 7.2 a year ago to 17.8 in 2007-08, fourth-best in the Big East. He’s shooting 54.3 percent from the field, 47.1 percent from 3-point range and has increased his free-throw percentage to 75.4, more than a 15 percent improvement from last season.
Blair, a true freshman who grew up in Pittsburgh, has given the team an athletic presence in the paint that had been lacking. He’s averaging 11.7 points and is third in the conference with 9.6 rebounds. Despite his 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame, Blair is also third in the Big East in steals at 2.3 per game.
The Panthers’ top scorers should have plenty to work against a Seton Hall team that yields 79.3 points per game - more than any major conference team in the nation.
The Pirates (10-5, 0-2) can put up some points of their own, however. Seton Hall scores 83.1 points per game - tied for second-best in the Big East - and it takes 68.2 shots per game on average, among the 10 most in the nation.
Senior Brian Laing is the conference’s second-leading scorer at 19.1 ppg, but he was held to 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting in the Pirates’ 61-56 loss at No. 15 Marquette on Tuesday.
Sophomore Eugene Harvey averages 16.7 points, ranking him seventh in the Big East. He had a team-high 18 against the Golden Eagles.
“That’s what I’m supposed to do, be the leader, the go-to guy,” Harvey said.
Harvey had a successful debut against the Panthers in the teams’ lone meeting last year, putting up 24 points in Pitt’s 71-68 road victory.
Seton Hall has alternated wins and losses in its last nine games since opening the season with a six-game winning streak. The Pirates have lost nine straight road Big East games since a 65-61 upset of the then-No. 8 Panthers on March 3, 2006.
Pitt leads the overall series 27-19, and has won seven of the last 10 meetings.