Pittsburgh has dropped two of its last three road games to fall from the nation’s top ranking, but those losses came in hostile environments to Big East contenders.
It’ll find a considerably different atmosphere at DePaul.
The sixth-ranked Panthers will look to win their 22nd straight game against an unranked opponent on Saturday when they visit the Blue Demons, the only team yet to pick up a Big East victory.
Pittsburgh (20-2, 7-2 Big East) ascended to No. 1 on Jan. 5 following an impressive road win at then-No. 11 Georgetown, and won a pair of conference home games prior to a trip to Louisville on Jan. 17.
The Panthers lost to the Cardinals, and after two more victories slipped up at Villanova on Jan. 28. They’ve gotten back on track with a pair of high-scoring home wins - 93-80 over Notre Dame last Saturday behind 23 points and 22 rebounds from DeJuan Blair, and 92-72 over Robert Morris on Monday, when they got 23 points from Sam Young and 13 assists from Levance Fields.
“You can’t look over any team,” Fields said after the win over the Colonials, “but obviously this is a game where we were heavily favored to win. Some of these games are kind of trap games that are tough to play. But for the most part, I thought we did a good job of handling it and treating it like a Big East game.”
Pitt has done a good job of handling most of its games against lesser opponents recently. The Panthers have won their last 21 games against unranked teams by an average of 18.2 points, and they’ve won all but three by double digits.
That streak began with a 98-79 victory against DePaul (8-15, 0-10) on March 9.
The Blue Demons are still looking for their first conference win in 2008-09, and the 10 straight losses have been ugly. They’ve come by an average of 13.5 points, and their three most recent losses have been by 18.7 points per game.
Leading scorer Dar Tucker (18.5 ppg) missed the Blue Demons’ latest loss, 76-61 at home to No. 8 Marquette on Tuesday, after he twisted an ankle in the pregame shootaround.
Tucker is questionable for Saturday’s game.
If he can’t go, Will Walker may have to shoulder the offensive load against Pitt. Walker has been DePaul’s go-to scorer the last two games, putting up 23 against Rutgers in a 75-56 loss last Saturday and then scoring a career-high 30 against Marquette.
“He’s really let the game come to him,” coach Jerry Wainwright said.
DePaul’s biggest obstacle will come on the boards, where Pitt is tied for 14th in the nation at 40.4 per game. The Blue Demons, meanwhile, are 14th in the Big East, grabbing an average of 35.6.
Blair is the nation’s fourth-leading rebounder at 12.7 per game, and he leads the country with 6.0 offensive boards per contest. His 22 against Notre Dame were a career high, and the Panthers have only seemed vulnerable when the 6-foot-7 sophomore is in foul trouble. Blair was limited to 20 minutes because of fouls in both losses.
He had 22 points and 14 rebounds in Pitt’s win over the Blue Demons last March, while Tucker had a game-high 23 for DePaul.
The Blue Demons are 1-15 in their last 16 games against Top 10 opponents.