PITTSBURGH (AP)—Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl is about to learn whether it was wise to allow his Volunteers to become, well, volunteers.
No. 11 Tennessee (6-0) meets No. 3 Pittsburgh (10-0) on Saturday in an SEC-Big East Invitational matchup of early season unbeatens. The game will be at the Consol Energy Center, not Pitt’s Petersen Events Center, but it will be anything but a neutral site game—not with 16,000 Pitt partisans attending.
“We’re going to get a great barometer of where we are at,” Pearl said.
For Pitt, it’s been 15 years, or since a December 1995 game against then-No. 11 North Carolina, that the Panthers played a non-conference game in Pittsburgh against such a highly ranked opponent.
For Tennessee, it’s a challenging trip to play a physical team most ranked schools would prefer not to meet until the NCAA tournament. One that Pearl gave up a game in Tennessee to play.
“We had the opportunity to play Marquette in Nashville. And there weren’t a lot of volunteers to go up there to Pittsburgh and play Pittsburgh without a return game,” Pearl said. “So as to put myself in good stead with our commissioner (Mike Slive), I volunteered the game. So we’ll see how it works out.”
No non-conference opponent has beaten Pitt in Pittsburgh since Bucknell on Jan. 2, 2005, although the Panthers have played few schools from the power conferences there during that time. This will be the highest-ranked non-conference team Pitt has met anywhere since losing to then-No. 3 Texas 78-62 in the CBE Classic in Kansas City last season.
“I don’t compare teams, but they’re a very good team,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “They run a lot of plays similar to what we run. There are a lot of similarities between the two programs. They’re good, and our guys know that.”
Pearl’s concerns about the Panthers are the same as every team that’s played them to date: They’re the nation’s best rebounding team. Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker can hit 3-pointers. And this might be the deepest of Dixon’s nine teams at Pitt, all but one of which has won at least 25 games.
With the 6-foot-10 Gary McGhee, 6-9 Dante Taylor and 6-9 Talib Zanna, the Panthers have three physical inside players. Nasir Robinson, at 6-5, can rebound and guard a skilled offensive player who is a couple of inches taller. All this depth and size allows Pitt to average 16 rebounds per game more than its opponents.
“It’s something we strive for,” Dixon said. “Our guys take great pride in it.”
Despite the ongoing NCAA investigation into Tennessee’s program and the SEC’s decision to suspend Pearl for the first eight conference games, the Volunteers won the preseason NIT, beating Villanova of the Big East 78-68 in Madison Square Garden. Pitt won the 2K Sports Classic in the same arena, defeating Texas 68-66.
“They’re very solid defensively, they’re physical,” Pearl said of the Panthers. “They’ve got some pride in their physicality. And yet the team is going to have to understand they’re also smart. If you touch them, they’ll fall down and draw a foul. But they’ll knock you down and make it look like part of the action. So, they’re smart.”
Tobias Harris, who is 6-8, averages 16.7 points and 5.8 rebounds for Tennessee. Pitt, 48-4 in December games since 2002, is led by Gibbs’ 17.4 scoring average. Pitt goes for its third 11-0 start in four seasons.
Rutgers (5-2), coached by former Pitt assistant Mike Rice, plays Auburn (3-4) in the other SEC-Big East game in Pittsburgh. Rice previously coached at Robert Morris, the Pittsburgh-area school that nearly upset Villanova in the NCAA tournament in March.
AP Sports Writer Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.