If Pittsburgh's struggles had been alarming before Thursday night's game against DePaul, then a stunning 84-81 loss to the host Blue Demons has inspired widespread panic among Panthers fans.
A Pittsburgh program that has won 25 or more games in seven of Jamie Dixon's eight seasons may not even get to 20 this season barring a turnaround. The Panthers parlayed a soft schedule into an 11-1 start, but they have since lost four straight games to the likes of Wagner, Notre Dame, Cincinnati and DePaul.
There's plenty of time for a turnaround and plenty of chances ahead for marquee victories, but it's difficult to envision Pittsburgh returning to the upper echelon of the Big East this season. Here's a look at the three biggest problems plaguing the Panthers and whether any of them are fixable this season:
1. The defense has been awful: Whereas formidable defense has been the hallmark of Pittsburgh's success under Jamie Dixon and Ben Howland, this year's Panthers have been unable to live up to the standard of their predecessors. Pittsburgh is 15th in the Big East in field goal percentage defense (44.1 percent) and dead last in points per possession allowed (1.05), all while playing a very pedestrian schedule. The departure of shot-blocking center Gary McGhee, athletic wing Gilbert Brown and harassing lead guard Brad Wanamaker have left a defensive void the current Panthers have yet to fill. An inability to contain opposing guards off the dribble has been the biggest culprit as evidenced by the success of DePaul's backcourt on Thursday.
2. There's no back-to-the-basket presence: Since DeJuan Blair left for the NBA three years ago, Pittsburgh has not had a back-to-the-basket scorer capable of getting points inside and freeing up shooters with by drawing double teams. McGhee at least made up for his lack of offensive prowess with top-notch defense and rebounding, but Dante Taylor (and before he left, Khem Birch) are not the shot-blocking presences that McGhee was. The lack of a true interior scorer has enabled defenses to play man-to-man in the post and blanket the perimeter. As a result, Pittsburgh is shooting 41.8 percent in its three Big East games and leading scorer Ashton Gibbs is having the least efficient season of his career, shooting 38.9 percent and sinking just 35.8 percent of his threes.
3. Pittsburgh misses Tray Woodall's dribble penetration: It wouldn't be such a big deal that opposing teams were crowding the three-point line against Pittsburgh if its guards could beat their man off the dribble and either score at the rim or dish to an open shooter. Unfortunately for the Panthers, with Tray Woodall injured and Brad Wanamaker having graduated, there has been nobody to fill that role during this skid. Gibbs struggles to beat his man off the dribble, Cameron Wright doesn't have the quickness to do it either and John Johnson has shown flashes but he's a freshman playing just 16 minutes a game. The hope for Pittsburgh would be that this area improves once Woodall returns, perhaps forcing the opposing defense to help on the ball, freeing up shooters for open looks and enabling the offense to thrive enough to make up for a suspect defense.