Head coach: Jamie Dixon (10th year at Pittsburgh) - 258-83 overall record. Won Big East regular-season championship in 2004, 2011; won Big East tournament in 2008; advanced to Elite Eight of NCAA tournament in 2008-09 season.
You should know: That the Panthers are on the rise under Jamie Dixon after an uncharacteristically poor 2011-12 season. Pittsburgh has won seven of its last nine, although they fell in decisive fashion at Marquette Saturday, 79-69. Since losing at home to Cincinnati (70-61) and at Rutgers (67-62) to open Big East play, the Panthers have won at Georgetown (73-45), at Villanova (58-43), at home against Connecticut (69-61), at Providence (68-64), at home against Syracuse (65-55), and at Cincinnati (62-52). Pittsburgh, which was dominant at the Petersen Events Center until last year, fell at home to Marquette in overtime in addition to the home loss to Cincinnati. They also lost by three (64-61) at Louisville. But the Panthers rank fifth in the country in scoring defense (54.4 ppg.) and are third in assist-to-turnover ratio (429-to-273), behind only Notre Dame (430-to-257) and Michigan (368-to-224). Pittsburgh also ranks 35th nationally in field-goal percentage defense (.389)…Notre Dame’s last visit to the Petersen Events Center was two years ago, and the Irish recorded a 56-51 victory. The Irish hold a 30-27 lead in the series, including four victories in a row and five of the last six. Since joining the Big East, Notre Dame is 14-12 against the Panthers. Last season, the Irish opened Big East play with a 72-59 victory over Pittsburgh at the Joyce Center. Alex Dragicevich, who has since transferred to Boston College, scored a game-high 22 points while Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins each scored 15 points. Grant also had nine assists. Jack Cooley was held to eight points, but grabbed 14 rebounds. Notre Dame shot 50.9 percent for the game. Pittsburgh led by a point at halftime, but the Irish out-scored them in the second half, 47-33.
Top losses: Ashton Gibbs (14.6 ppg., 81 three-pointers); Nasir Robinson 10.6 ppg., 6.5 rpg., 109 offensive rebounds).
Top players: No one player ever dominates the productivity for the Panthers with nine players averaging at least 15 minutes of action per game, and a 10th with 11.4 minutes per game.
Tray Woodall, a 6-foot-0, 190-pound senior, leads the Panthers in scoring at 10.9, and yet he’s scored more than 14 points just three times this season. Woodall also averages 5.5 assists per game. He is the team’s leading three-point shooter at .377 (43-of-114).
Not far behind in the scoring column are 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior Lamar Patterson (10.5 ppg.) and 6-foot-9, 230-pound junior Talib Zanna (10.3 ppg.). Patterson is Pittsburgh’s No. 2 option from beyond the arc with a sparkling .393 percentage (35-of-89). He scored 19 points in Saturday’s loss to Marquette, had 12 points and 10 rebounds a couple of weeks ago against Seton Hall, and scored 22 points in an earlier meeting with Marquette. Patterson also chips in with 4.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
Zanna, a native of Nigeria, handles much of the dirty work for the Panthers. He averages 5.9 rebounds per game to go along with his double-digit scoring, and yet he’s scored in double figures just once in the last 10 games. He’s shooting .521 from the field and is second on the team in offensive rebounds with 72. In the last five games, he’s had 10 rebounds against Louisville, 12 versus Syracuse, and nine against Cincinnati.
J.J. Moore, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound junior, is another role player for Pittsburgh. He only averages 18.8 minutes per game. But he scores at an 8.2 clip and has grabbed 3.4 rebounds per game. He’s shooting a sizzling .852 (52-of-61) from the free-throw line.
Two freshmen make a significant contribution, one up front - 7-foot-0, 250-pound Steven Adams - and another in the backcourt - 6-foot-3, 200-pound James Robinson. Adams averages 7.0 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting .587 from the field. He leads the team in blocked shots (51) and offensive rebounds (77). The New Zealand product had 13 points against Cincinnati on Feb. 9 and 15 rebounds versus Seton Hall on Feb. 4. He also had 14 rebounds against DePaul in late-January.
Robinson, recruited heavily by the Irish, does a bit of everything for the Panthers. He’s averaging 6.1 points, 2.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. He’s having difficulty, however, shooting the basketball (.367 field-goal percentage and .316 from three-point range).
Four others make significant contributions. Trey Zeigler, a 6-foot-5, 203-pound junior, scores at a 5.4 clip. He’s a liability at the line, however, with just 22 converted on 43 attempts (.512). Dante Taylor plays 15.3 minutes per game and averages 4.8 points and 3.9 rebounds. He’s converted .560 (47-of-84) from the field and is third on the team in offensive rebounds with 47.
Cameron Wright, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound sophomore, averages 4.6 points per game, but is shooting just .548 (17-of-31) from the charity stripe. Durand Johnson is a 6-foot-6, 205-pound freshman averaging 4.2 points per game while playing 11.4 minutes per contest.
Prister’s take: This has a bad vibe to it for the Fighting Irish. They were atrocious for the better part of 40 minutes in the 71-54 loss to Providence, which converted 8-of-20 from three-point range. And while the Panthers certainly weren’t at their best in a 10-point loss at Marquette that wasn’t that close, at least they’re returning home, where good things usually happen for them.
Pat Connaughton (0-of-4 shooting in 27 minutes) continues to play in a fog on the road, and Cam Biedscheid has struggled for the most part away from Purcell Pavilion. Notre Dame’s guard play against Providence was weak as Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant combined for 5-of-17 shooting. The only real positive to come out of the Providence game was the performance of Irish big men Tom Knight (11 points on 5-of-7 shooting) and Garrick Sherman (11 points on 5-of-9 shooting in 12 minutes).
This is not a good match-up for the Irish. Notre Dame looks like a tired team after playing seven overtime periods in four games. Meanwhile, Jamie Dixon - truly one of the great coaches in the country - employs 10 players on a regular basis. No one player stands out. They all contribute.
Pittsburgh plays great defense, shares and protects the basketball well, and will be inspired to get back to their winning ways after a tough road game Saturday. The Irish should be fired up to bounce back with a win as well. Notre Dame came to the Petersen Events Center and won two years ago. But the circumstances at the time were much different. A guy by the name of Ben Hansbrough led this team back then, and he wouldn’t tolerate the weakness of heart displayed by the Irish in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
While Irish head coach Mike Brey did a good job of keeping his team on an even keel as they were getting their heads handed to them against Providence, Notre Dame’s confidence is shaken. They’ll battle because that’s what Brey’s teams do when they are backed into a corner. But there doesn’t appear to be enough mojo working in Notre Dame’s favor at the present time.
Said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim two weeks ago after the Panthers defeated the Orange by 10: “They’re the best team we’ve played, without any question. It’s not even close.” Dixon has defeated Boeheim 10 out of the last 13.
The Irish couldn’t beat Syracuse two weeks ago in the Carrier Dome, and they’re not in the right frame of mind or playing good enough basketball to knock off the Panthers at The Pete.
Pointspread: Pittsburgh by 10 ˝
Prister’s Prediction: Pittsburgh 67, Notre Dame 54
Prister’s record: 21-5 straight up; 11-12 vs. points