Foul trouble for DeJuan Blair has been a major factor in Pittsburgh’s two losses, as the sophomore center has been limited to just 20 minutes in each of those games.
Luke Harangody has played nearly every minute of Notre Dame’s past four contests—and the Irish have come up empty each time.
The third-ranked Panthers will try to bounce back from a road loss Saturday afternoon when they return home to face reeling Notre Dame, which is facing its fifth straight ranked opponent.
Pitt (18-2, 6-2 Big East) and Notre Dame were both Top 10 teams coming into the season, and the Panthers have never left, rising to the school’s first No. 1 ranking for two weeks earlier this month.
Yet a 69-63 loss at then-No. 20 Louisville on Jan. 17 knocked Pitt from the nation’s top spot, and there was one major reason the Panthers couldn’t hang on to a 10-point lead with under 10 minutes to play. Blair picked up his fourth foul around that time, and the Cardinals went on a game-ending 24-8 run.
Blair averaged 18.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and - perhaps most importantly for Pitt - 31 minutes in wins over Syracuse and West Virginia, but the big man was in foul trouble once again Wednesday at Villanova. The nation’s leading offensive rebounder was limited to 20 minutes because of fouls, and the Panthers lost 67-57.
“We missed DeJuan a lot, just his presence helps,” guard Levance Fields said. “Obviously the two losses have been with him in foul trouble. We’ve got to do a better job of playing without him.”
Another recent problem for Pitt has been Fields’ inability to take care of the basketball. Fields came into the Louisville game the nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio - 4.71 - but he hasn’t come close to matching that since. The senior guard has 16 turnovers in his past four games after giving it away just 24 times in his first 16 contests.
“We have to learn after a loss and we did after Louisville,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “That’s for us to figure out.”
Notre Dame (12-7, 3-5), meanwhile, hasn’t been able to figure anything out lately against one of the most brutal schedule stretches any team will encounter this season.
The Irish have played their last three games against teams ranked in the Top 10 at the time, and their game before that was at Louisville, which is now No. 7 in the country.
They’ve lost them all, even with their All-American doing everything he can. Harangody, the nation’s fifth-leading scorer, is averaging 26.5 points and 15.3 rebounds over that stretch.
Harangody, though, hasn’t gotten much help. Notre Dame is shooting 34.9 percent as a team in its last three games and 30.2 percent from 3-point range in its last two. The Irish were 8-of-26 from beyond the arc Monday against No. 8 Marquette and fell 71-64, their second straight home loss after 45 straight victories in South Bend.
“One thing you can’t lose sight of is we’ve taken four punches from really good teams,” coach Mike Brey said. “But you have chances for big wins still on the schedule, and you don’t need to get them all. You need to get a couple. But on days like this it looks like you could never get any.”
The Irish last lost five in a row from Jan. 20-Feb. 4, 2006.
Notre Dame especially needs Kyle McAlarney to get going. The senior guard is averaging 9.0 points on 22.2 percent shooting in his last two games after hitting 51.3 percent in his previous three.
McAlarney had 15 points and Harangody 23 in the Irish’s 82-70 home win over Pitt on Feb. 21. Prior to that, the Panthers had won five straight in the series.