Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon knows his team must improve its overall play if it wants to remain among the leaders in the Big East.
The 17th-ranked Panthers will likely need to play better than they have been Sunday, when they try for a fourth straight victory against a South Florida team that’s looking to maintain its most successful stretch since joining the Big East in 2005-06.
Pittsburgh (16-4, 6-2) needed a game-ending 9-1 run to overcome a six-point deficit and avoid its first three-game losing streak in two years with a 63-53 win over St. John’s on Thursday.
The result still wasn’t enough to satisfy Dixon. The Panthers shot 40.0 percent after combining to make 40.7 percent of their shots in back-to-back losses to then-No. 12 Georgetown and Seton Hall.
“We need to be showing improvement,” said Dixon, whose squad is tied with West Virginia for third in the conference. “We have to be a better team. It’s something that needs to be done, it’s not given.”
The Panthers did play well defensively, holding the Red Storm to 32.8 percent shooting and forcing 15 turnovers while keeping an opponent below 60 points for the first time in four games. Pittsburgh is giving up a Big East-low 59.8 points per contest.
“We were more intense (defensively), more on the same page, and we were talking more - something we didn’t do the last couple of games,” said guard Brad Wanamaker, who had a team-leading 16 points. “We got back in the flow and hopefully it will carry on to the next game.”
The Panthers will likely need to be at their best against suddenly surging South Florida (13-7, 3-5), which is one league victory away from matching the school record set last season.
“I don’t know the perception everybody has of us,” coach Stan Heath said. “We think we have a good basketball team. We think that we’re capable of winning games.
The Bulls have won consecutive conference games for the first time since joining the Big East after a pair of overtime victories, 109-105 at Providence on Jan. 23, and 76-74 over Seton Hall on Thursday.
“It builds up our confidence as a team,” said junior Dominique Jones, who had 28 points against the Pirates. “I think if we just go in the game and play hard and play smart and just do the best that we can, we give ourselves a good chance to win.”
Despite its current run, South Florida is averaging 58.7 points while going 0-3 against Pitt in league play. The Panthers are a Big East-best 44-27 on the road over the last nine years.
The Panthers, however, must try to contain Jones, who’s averaging 21.4 points this season and 28.4 on 51.6 percent shooting in his last seven games. The junior had 22 points and seven assists in a 75-62 loss at then-No. 1 Pitt in the teams’ last meeting on Jan. 14, 2009.
South Florida, 3-20 against Top 25 teams since joining the Big East, has lost three in a row versus ranked opponents since beating then-No. 8 Marquette 57-56 at home on Feb. 6.
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