Pittsburgh had little trouble dealing with a pair of Big East bottom feeders in its first two games as the nation’s No. 1 team. Its next test figures to be significantly more challenging.
The top-ranked Panthers will put their perfect record on the line Saturday night when they travel to Freedom Hall and face No. 20 Louisville, which is looking for its third straight win over a ranked opponent.
Pitt (16-0, 4-0 Big East) had never been the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25, but rose to the nation’s top spot Jan. 5 following a win at Georgetown coupled with losses by North Carolina and Connecticut.
The Panthers had eight days off after their 70-54 victory over the then-No. 11 Hoyas - Pitt’s first win against a ranked opponent - and headed back to the Petersen Events Center for a pair of games against lower-tier Big East teams.
Like he’s done all season, DeJuan Blair made sure the Panthers wouldn’t lose. The sophomore center had 23 points and 15 rebounds in a 90-67 win over St. John’s on Sunday, then had 13 points and 18 boards as Pitt overcame a sluggish first half to top South Florida 75-62 on Wednesday.
Rather than talk about another dominant rebounding effort - Blair leads the nation with 6.3 offensive boards a game and is second with 13.0 overall - the big man chose to credit his point guard, Levance Fields, who finished with a career-high 13 assists.
“He’s the best point guard in the nation as far as I’m concerned,” Blair said. “Playing with him, you can tell how good he is at getting you the ball in the right position, and making sure that our offense is always moving in rhythm.”
Fields is doing his best to back up Blair’s claim. His 7.1 assists per game are tied for third in the country, and his 4.71 assist-to-turnover ratio leads the nation.
Fields has dished out eight assists for every turnover he’s had against Louisville the last two seasons. He’s shot just 24.4 percent versus the Cardinals (12-3, 3-0), though, leaving the scoring to Blair and Sam Young.
Pitt hasn’t visited Freedom Hall since a victory on Jan. 15, 2006, but it’s met Louisville in each of the last three Big East tournaments, winning a tight game each time. Young, the team’s leading scorer this season at 18.7 points per game, had 21 points and 12 rebounds in the Panthers’ thrilling 76-69 overtime win in the conference tournament quarterfinals in March.
The Cardinals will be facing a top-ranked team for the fifth time since 2000, and their last attempt to knock off No. 1 didn’t come long ago. Louisville lost by 10 to North Carolina in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament on March 29.
After not facing a ranked opponent in its first 13 games, coach Rick Pitino’s team has gotten used to playing top competition in a hurry. Over the last week, the Cardinals gutted out a 61-60 victory at then-No. 18 Villanova last Saturday, then came home on Monday and survived No. 12 Notre Dame, 87-73 in overtime.
“We lost three games and a lot of people were down on us,” said Terrence Williams, who finished with 24 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists. “To take the lead in overtime and execute, that shows that this team is maturing.”
Williams, who’s second in the Big East with 2.5 steals per game, will likely draw the assignment of guarding Young. Between Williams (9.3 rebounds per game) and the frontcourt duo of Samardo Samuels (6.1 rpg) and Earl Clark (8.9 rpg), Louisville should be well-equipped to deal with Blair.
Prior to the win at Georgetown, Pitt had lost seven straight Big East road games against ranked opponents. The Cardinals have won four consecutive conference home games against Top 25 teams.