PITTSBURGH (AP)—It seemed like a good idea three months ago.
Pittsburgh. Louisville. The Big East’s winningest team over the last decade against a club ranked in the preseason Top 10 in a rivalry that’s developed into one the best in the league since the Cardinals joined in 2005.
Throw it in primetime in late January to give it a big-game feel. What could go wrong, right?
Turns out, just about everything.
The 23rd-ranked Cardinals (14-5, 2-4 Big East) are hurting, the latest blow coming on Monday when junior forward Rakeem Buckles tore the ACL in his left knee in a loss at Marquette, ending his season early for the second straight year.
The Panthers (11-8, 0-6) don’t have as lengthy an injury list, but really all it’s taken is one to do them in. Pitt has been out of sync since point guard Tray Woodall went out with groin and abdominal injuries in a victory over Duquesne at the end of November.
Without their floor leader, the Panthers have looked lost offensively. Big East preseason player of the year Ashton Gibbs has struggled with an increased ballhandling workload and Pitt’s shooting has been abysmal.
The Panthers are last in the league in conference play in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage, numbers they hope to turn around with Woodall expected to play.
Good thing, because Pitt is running out of options, and time.
“It’s not like you can go the free agent route or make a trade,” Dixon said. “It’s just a different deal.”
One the Panthers need to turn around quickly if they want their season to extend beyond the Big East tournament.
“We’ve been going through our struggles,” Pitt forward Lamar Patterson said. “I think this game is going to be a huge one for us. We’ll just show we’ve been working on everything and getting straight.”
Beating Louisville would be a start. The Cardinals rose to No. 4 in the polls in late December after winning their first 12 games yet have been in a tailspin over the last month, particularly when they’ve had to play on the road.
The nadir may have come in a 31-point beatdown at the hands of lowly Providence, when the Cardinals got run off the floor by the Friars on the same day the school honored Pitino for leading the program to the Final Four 25 years ago.
Pitino points to the injuries—a list that includes Buckles, swingman Kyle Kuric and freshman point guard Kevin Ware—and grows ornery when asked whether his practices may be too tough for their own good. Losing key players for long stretches of time has become as much a part of the program over the last five years as Pitino’s finely tailored suits.
Yet he remains optimistic the Cardinals can turn it around. They played arguably their best 10 minutes of the season against Marquette, racing to an 18-2 lead. It didn’t hold up, as they faded down the stretch.
He’d prefer to think of it as a teaching moment instead of a collapse.
“I don’t think we’ll get discouraged,” Pitino said. “I don’t think we’ll get down about injuries. I don’t think any of that. I think they’re so used to it from last season that I don’t think anything gets them down.”
Maybe, but a loss to the Panthers might do the trick. Guard Russ Smith knows there will be a sense of desperation in the air at the Petersen Events Center on Saturday night.
“We understand that Pitt’s scenario is a little bit more serious,” Smith said. “We definitely know the way we have to play—just try to sustain a lead the whole game and just try to come out with a victory because it’s going to be hard to play over there.”
Not so much anymore.
The Panthers have been nearly unbeatable on their home floor over the last decade, at least until this season. Pitt has already lost four times at the Pete this season, including an embarrassing 62-39 loss to Rutgers on Jan. 11.
Dixon hopes Woodall’s return gives Gibbs the freedom to focus on scoring and breathes some life into “Oakland Zoo”—the Pete’s normally rambunctious student section.
Pitino knows it could be Pitt’s last stand. He’d prefer it not to become the Cardinals’ too.
“We’re all in the same boat right now,” Pitino said. “Everybody’s starving for a victory.”