With a pair of devastating injuries to two starters right before Big East play began, it seemed to be a matter not of how far Pittsburgh would fall, but rather how fast. Instead, it may have become even better.
The No. 15 Panthers (15-2, 3-1) look to build off the momentum of their second victory against a top 10 team this season on Saturday when they travel to Cincinnati.
Senior Mike Cook tore his ACL in Pitt’s previous win over a top 10 team, a 65-64 victory against then-No. 6 Duke on Dec. 20. When Levance Fields broke his foot at Dayton on Dec. 29, the Panthers lost 80-55 and their hopes for a return to the Big East championship game looked to be gone before conference play began.
Instead, Pitt brushed off a one-point loss to then-No. 17 Villanova on Jan. 6 by responding with three impressive victories, including a 69-60 win against fifth-ranked Georgetown on Monday.
The Panthers’ new starting backcourt—seniors Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin—led the way with 18 points apiece.
“Teams felt like they had a better chance of beating us when we went down a few guys, but we knew we would come out stronger, and we’ve been proving it since they went down,” Ramon said.
Both Ramon and Benjamin were rotation players prior to the injuries, but their minutes have increased drastically since Fields went down.
Ramon has averaged 16.0 points and 6.0 assists in his past two games, while knocking down 8-of-14 from 3-point range. Benjamin, who never averaged more than 4.6 points in his first three seasons at Pitt, has caught fire since being inserted into the starting lineup against Lafayette on Jan. 2, scoring 17.0 points per contest.
“Maybe we had fewer players, but I didn’t hear anybody talking about getting ready for next season,” said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. “We knew we still had to get better, we still had to get stuff done.”
Ramon and Benjamin’s jobs have been made easier given the play of the Panthers’ two frontcourt stars, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair.
Young is the fourth-leading scorer in the Big East, averaging 17.9 points - 10.7 more than he scored last season. Blair, a 6-foot-7 freshman, has filled the void left by departed senior 7-footer Aaron Gray in the paint by averaging 12.4 points and 9.8 rebounds despite being an undersized center.
“Physical play is why I came to the Big East,” Blair said. “If you don’t like that style of play then you need to find a new conference.”
The Bearcats (8-9, 3-2) had won two straight Big East games, including a win over then-No. 19 Villanova, but were blown out 91-74 at Notre Dame on Tuesday despite holding a 34-27 halftime lead.
“In my opinion, we lost the game in the first half,” said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin. “We had every opportunity to have a double-digit lead.”
Scoring has been the Bearcats’ main problem all season. They average just 65.9 points, 15th in the 16-team Big East. They’re also next to last in shooting (41.8 percent) and rebounding (35.6 per game).
Cincinnati’s only consistent scorer is sophomore guard Deonta Vaughn, who averages 16.9 points. He had scored 26.0 points over the team’s previous three games, but was held to 10 on 3-of-13 shooting against the Irish.
The Bearcats and Panthers have met twice since Cincinnati joined the Big East, with Pitt winning both by an average of 18.0 points.