Pittsburgh forward Sam Young is one of the Big East’s best players, but he hardly looked the part in a three-game stretch earlier this month that culminated in the Panthers’ first loss.
Young appears to be back on track - and so does Pitt.
Coming off consecutive 22-point performances in impressive wins, Young will look to keep the third-ranked Panthers rolling Wednesday night at No. 21 Villanova in the final college basketball game at Philadelphia’s Spectrum.
Young, a unanimous preseason All-Big East selection, averaged 19.5 points on 51.7 percent shooting as Pitt raced out to a 14-0 start.
After that, the senior struggled from the floor as the Panthers (18-1, 6-1) beat St. John’s and South Florida, and then had possibly his worst game of the season at Louisville on Jan. 17. Young shot 6-for-20 as Pitt blew a double-digit second-half lead and suffered its first loss, 69-63.
Since that three-game stretch, in which he averaged 13.3 points, Young has bounced back. He had 22 points in a 78-60 rout of then-No. 8 Syracuse on Jan. 19, then scored 22 again Sunday at West Virginia. Sixteen of those came in the second half as the Panthers turned a narrow lead into a comfortable 79-67 victory.
“That is what he does,” coach Jamie Dixon said of Young, who was named Big East player of the week Monday. “There are times when we want him to get to the basket and post up a little more. But he is shooting a pretty good percentage from three and we want him to get to the free-throw line, which he is able to do a little bit more.”
Young hasn’t been without help. Sophomore big man DeJuan Blair averaged 18.0 points and 11.5 rebounds in the wins over Syracuse and West Virginia, and freshman guard Jermaine Dixon is averaging 11.6 points over his last five games.
The 79 points the Panthers scored against the Mountaineers were the most West Virginia - the Big East’s second-best defensive team behind Pitt - had allowed this season.
Villanova (15-4, 3-3) allows the fourth-fewest points per game (62.2) in the Big East.
It’ll likely take another strong defensive effort for Villanova to win the final college basketball game played at the Spectrum. The legendary Philadelphia venue has hosted two Final Fours, and was the site of Christian Laettner’s famed buzzer-beater that lifted Duke over Kentucky in a 1992 regional final.
The Wildcats are 30-28 all-time in the arena, but haven’t played there since 1998.
They’ve alternated wins and losses in their last seven games overall. Villanova’s three conference losses have all come to teams currently ranked among the top eight in the nation - Marquette, Louisville and Connecticut.
After a six-point defeat at UConn last Wednesday, the Wildcats needed a 10-3 game-ending run Saturday at South Florida to pull away for a 70-61 victory.
“That’s just a part of the Big East. All of these games are nailbiters,” said forward Dwayne Anderson, who had seven points and 11 rebounds. “That’s what makes this conference so great.”
The Wildcats got only seven points from junior guard Scottie Reynolds (14.7 ppg) on Saturday. Since scoring 40 points in a win at Seton Hall on Jan. 6, Reynolds has totaled 41 in his next four games.
Pittsburgh has won three of its last four meetings with Villanova, with the loss coming by one point on the road last season. The teams have met once at the Spectrum, a 75-72 Wildcats win in 1991.