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Pittsburgh scouting report: Struggling Panthers looking for hope

From preseason rankings to where teams are now, there has not been a more disappointing team in college basketball than the Pittsburgh Panthers.

Losers of five straight, including four in conference play, the Panthers will look to pick up their first Big East win Saturday against Marquette.

Here’s a look at Jamie Dixon’s squad and what the Golden Eagles must do to contain Pittsburgh’s half court offense to move to 3-2 in conference play:

Preseason Big East Player of the Year Ashton Gibbs has not lived up to expectations midway through the season and much of the Panthers’ struggles have come down on him. The 6-foot-2 guard’s numbers are up in almost every category in his senior year except shooting percentage. One of the most efficient players in the country last year, Gibbs’ is shooting 37.8 percent from the field and 33.9 percent from beyond the arc, significantly lower than his numbers from a year ago (46.8/49.0). Still, Gibbs is someone to look for on the court. He has thrived on finding open looks in Pittsburgh’s offense but can finish contested looks and has a solid mid-range game.

One bright start to Pittsburgh’s abysmal stretch has been forward Nasir Robinson. A role player the last two seasons, Robinson has stepped up to average 12.5 points on 61.5 percent shooting and a team-high 6.8 rebounds. He has worked hard to find open looks inside and to grab offensive rebounds and score on second chance points. He is undersized at 6-foot-5 but packs a punch and is quick to the ball. He is one of the many Pittsburgh forwards Marquette will need to find the second a shot goes up.

Nasir Robinson has been a positive during the Panthers' tumultuous season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Panthers’ other starting forward, Lamar Patterson, plays like Jae Crowder but has been asked to play inside more after the departure of freshman Khem Birch. He has struggled offensively during Pittsburgh’s five-game losing streak, shooting 7.8 points on 27.6 percent from the field, but is still an inside-out threat to watch.

The 14th best rebounding team in the nation is substantially helped by the play reserves Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna. Taylor, a 6-foot-9 junior, essentially took over for the graduated Gary McGee and has provided an interior presence not seen by either starter. Zanna, a sophomore, has had scoring outputs of 13 and 16 during the five-game losing streak and has averaged 8.7 points and 7.1 rebounds since Birch’s departure. Both crash the boards extremely well, especially on the offensive end. Taylor’s 15.2 percent offensive rebounding rate is 35th in the nation and Zanna’s 17.9 percent rate is seventh.

Freshman point guard John Johnson has seen his role increase since Travon Woodall’s groin injury. While he has held his own against Big East competition (6.2 points, 3.2 assists), it’s clear Woodall’s injury has been a key factor in the Panthers’ struggles. Johnson, however, is a threat from the outside, shooting 47.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Sophomore forward J.J. Moore has seen an increase in play since Birch’s transfer and has a streaky offensive game while reserve guard Cameron Wright is a defensive stopper for the Panthers.

Where the Panthers are good

Pittsburgh shoots over 46 percent from the field, good for 59th in the country, but is still one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation. The Panthers’ 45.9 percent offensive rebounding rate is the best mark in the nation and is one of the reasons they shoot over 51 percent from inside the arc. While Khem Birch was a big reason for this success, Robinson, Taylor and Zanna all do an excellent job crashing the offensive glass.

Marquette did a nice job getting to the free throw line against St. John’s, one of the best teams at preventing freebies, and will need to do it again against Pitt. The Panthers allow 15.6 free throws per game, 25th best in the country, and will try to keep Marquette off the line.

Ashton Gibbs has struggled without Travon Woodall but is still capable of catching a hot streak and burning defenses. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

The Panthers play one of the slowest-paced games in the nation (an adjusted tempo of 62.8) and, while it hasn’t resulted in victories this year, it’s still something they do well. Marquette has played its last two games on 74 and 70 possessions and, against St. John’s, had 25 fast break points and were able to play their game. Pittsburgh’s slow-paced game has given Marquette fits the past three seasons and the Panthers will look to do it again Saturday.

Where the Panthers can be beat

The only stat is that the Panthers have lost five straight, but morale has to be a serious issue for Jamie Dixon’s group. Expected to contend for a Big East championship, Pittsburgh’s NCAA Tournament hopes seem bleak at this point and Marquette is catching a team while they are down. About as far down as a team can get. Momentum will be key for the Golden Eagles as they look to push Pittsburgh to an unfathomable 0-5 start in league play.

Marquette’s offense has played well the past three games but has turned the ball over almost 16 times. That shouldn’t be the case against Pittsburgh. The Panthers are averaging a measly 4.1 steals per game and teams are turning the ball over at a 16.4 percent rate, one of the worst marks in the country. As is the case in all Big East games, Marquette must take care of the ball. But it shouldn’t be an issue against the Panthers, who are struggling to force miscues.

The Pittsburgh offense has been in cahoots without Woodall, and nowhere has this seen better than in Big East play. The Panthers are averaging 59.2 points per game in conference play, and that included an 81-point performance against DePaul. Without a pure scorer after Gibbs, the Panthers’ offense has struggled.

Keys to the game

1. Full court pressure: Buzz Williams has implemented plenty of man-to-man full court press lately and Pittsburgh is a perfect candidate for the same strategy. Without Woodall, Pittsburgh doesn’t have its best ball handler and, against the slow-paced offense, taking seconds off the clock and potentially forcing turnovers would help Marquette set the pace it wants.

2. Limit offensive rebounds: Davante Gardner is playing as well as he has all year and he and the Marquette front court will have their hands full Saturday. The way the Panthers are shooting the ball during their losing streak, offensive rebounds will be plentiful. As always, Marquette needs to crash the boards. As Buzz Williams has said in the past, it’s easier to get out on the break when you’re rebounding the ball instead of taking the ball out of the basket.

3. No letdown: It seems easy enough, but Marquette must keep its momentum. Pittsburgh will do anything for a win at this point and its talent level is high enough that the Panthers have the ability to break out at any point. It can’t happen Saturday at the Bradley Center. Marquette must stick to its guns and not have a letdown. The Golden Eagles haven’t played a solid 40 minutes in the Big East yet. Saturday would be a great time to start.

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