Pittsburgh’s first-ever No. 1 ranking lasted two weeks earlier this season. It’s hoping to hold onto the top spot a little longer the second time around.
The Panthers lost their first road game after ascending to No. 1 last month, a fate they’ll try to avoid Tuesday night as they go for their ninth straight victory over Providence.
Pitt (25-2, 12-2 Big East) won two home games after being voted the nation’s top team Jan. 5, but fell at then-No. 20 Louisville on Jan. 17 and again 11 days later at then-No. 21 Villanova.
Coach Jamie Dixon’s team hasn’t lost since, winning seven in a row by an average of 15.7 points. The Panthers knew they’d be strongly considered to move up from No. 4 when they beat then-No. 1 Connecticut on the road Monday, and followed it up with an 80-61 home victory over DePaul on Saturday.
Those wins, coupled with losses Saturday by No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 North Carolina, resulted in Pitt vaulting to the top of the poll.
“I think later in the year it reflects more of a long-term accomplishment, more on what you have done almost the entire season because there’s not too many more polls left,” Dixon said. “It still all comes down to doing it on the floor and everything is settled there. I’d rather be No. 1 than someone else.”
The Panthers’ latest rise has been fueled by sophomore big man DeJuan Blair, who’s put himself into the discussion for Big East player of the year as well as top honors nationally.
Blair began last week by dominating UConn’s 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet, scoring 22 points and grabbing a career-high 23 rebounds in the win over the Huskies. He followed that with 20 points and 18 boards in just 23 minutes against the Blue Demons.
“I was feeling I could get every rebound,” Blair, who leads the nation with 6.0 offensive rebounds per game, said Saturday. “I was going after the ball, going to get the money - that’s what I call the ball, the money. Go get that money, and we’re going to get a win. I’ll do anything for my team to win.”
Pitt is 21-0 when Blair scores at least 10 points.
Blair has had plenty of help from Pitt leading scorer Sam Young, who’s averaging 18.7 points on 60.6 percent shooting in his last six games, as well as Levance Fields. The point guard leads the nation with a 4.04 assist-to-turnover ratio - 6.70-to-1 in his past seven games.
Blair scored 15 points and Young added a game-high 22 in the Panthers’ last matchup with Providence, an 82-63 home victory Feb. 12, 2008. Only two of the Panthers’ eighth straight wins in the series have come in Providence, where the teams haven’t met since 2006.
The Friars (16-11, 8-7) looked like they might be NCAA tournament-bound late after opening Big East play 6-2, but they’ve struggled since. Providence has dropped five of seven, most recently losing 103-84 at home to Notre Dame on Saturday.
“What’s a defense going to do?” coach Keno Davis said after the Fighting Irish made 11 first-half 3-pointers. “It seemed like they got whatever they wanted, whether they wanted to go inside or outside.”
The loss certainly wasn’t on the shoulders of senior guard Weyinmi Efejuku, who had a career-high 31 points. Efejuku is averaging 23.7 points in his previous three games.
Junior guard Sharaud Curry, who had 23 against the Irish, averaged 22.0 points in his last two games against Pitt.
Providence is 1-10 all-time against top-ranked teams.
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