The departure of freshman Khem Birch leaves Pittsburgh with some concerns about its depth inside, but it feels confident that it has plenty of viable options to fill his playing time.
While still adjusting to the loss of Birch, the 15th-ranked Panthers don’t expect much of a challenge Tuesday night when they try to improve to 29-0 against visiting St. Francis, Pa.
The day before a 69-55 win over South Carolina State on Saturday, the Panthers (10-1) announced that Birch, one of the program’s most highly touted recruits in years, was leaving the team for personal reasons.
Birch had started the last six games and was averaging 4.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots in helping Pittsburgh lead the nation with a plus-12.9 rebounding differential.
While Birch’s former teammates were ready to move on without him, the news came as Pitt is still waiting for the return of starting point guard Travon Woodall, who is averaging 14.1 points and 8.3 assists but will be out until early January with a groin injury.
“Every team goes through adversity,” sophomore forward Lamar Patterson said. “It will make us grow and mature.”
The focus now is finding someone to step up in Birch’s absence to help the Panthers inside. Junior Dante Taylor took back his starting job but was ineffective in 25 minutes Saturday, finishing with two points and four rebounds.
However, sophomore Talib Zanna had 12 points and 14 rebounds in a season-high 26 minutes for his second double-double.
The Panthers are also excited about the potential of 6-foot-11 freshman Malcolm Gilbert, who was expected to redshirt this season. He had played in just one minute against Long Beach State on Nov. 16 but was on the floor for five minutes in the first half Saturday and had two points and one rebound. His role is likely to increase, particularly as he recovers from some back issues.
“We need our younger guys to step up,” senior forward Nasir Robinson said.
Although the Panthers were rusty following a week-long layoff, the strong play inside gave them a 41-29 advantage on the boards. They held South Carolina State to 38.9 percent shooting in winning their eighth straight.
Pittsburgh has two non-conference games left before opening Big East play at Notre Dame next Tuesday. The next one should be an easy one, as the Panthers are 20-0 at home against St. Francis.
The Red Flash have won three of four after opening the season with six straight losses, beating American University 66-61 on Dec. 10. Leading scorer Scott Eatherton finished with 21 points on 6-of-7 shooting while Ollie Jackson had 14 to help St. Francis (3-7) rally from a 16-point deficit late in the first half.
“It gives us some confidence going into the Pitt game,” senior forward Jon Taylor said. “That’s going to be a tough game.”
Pittsburgh will want to keep its eye on Eatherton, who is scoring 14.0 points per game and leads Division I in shooting at 77.6 percent. The sophomore forward is making 80.0 percent of his attempts while averaging 16.7 points in the last six games.
These teams last met in 2004 with the Panthers winning 65-41.