Pitt men's basketball team turning up intensity on season

| Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012

Here are few words seldom heard in the same sentence at Pitt — must-win game and DePaul.

Following one of the most physical practices of the season, senior Nasir Robinson said the Panthers (11-4, 0-2 Big East) realize the urgency as they head to DePaul (9-4, 0-1) amid a three-game losing streak.

"It's definitely a must-win," Robinson said. "We are going to go out there hungry and try to get this thing back on track."

Robinson said the intensity was ratcheted up a couple of notches Tuesday at practice, especially during ball-security drills for the turnover-prone Panthers (17 vs. Cincinnati and 18 vs. Wagner).

It was Pitt's first practice since the 66-63 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday; the Panthers took off Monday, per NCAA practice limitation rules.

The 6-foot-5 Robinson said the Pitt staff put its whistles away. Anything goes. Toughen up or get pushed around, or worse.

"A couple guys' mouths got bloody," he said. "I think we needed that. It's going to help us."

Robinson believes the rough-and-tumble practices will harden a Pitt team that has lacked some toughness this season.

"We don't take (the physical play) personally," he said. "We know we are just trying to get each other better. One guy might not like it. But that's who we are going to sacrifice to get better."

Coach Jamie Dixon wants more aggressive on-ball defense. Pitt's opponents are shooting almost 42 percent from 3-point range (38 for 91) in the past five games.

"We've been getting into each other," sophomore J.J. Moore said, "slapping and hacking and playing hard."

Added Dixon: "That was one of the things we worked on specifically."

Robinson recalled, almost fondly, how then-seniors Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs and sophomore DeJuan Blair roughed him up as a freshman in 2008-09. Even point guard Levance Fields got physical with the kid from Chester.

"Those guys threw me around," he said. "I held my ground and tried to throw them back. It carried over. What they did to us, we are doing to our younger guys, and they throw it back. It makes the practices more competitive."

Pitt already has dug itself a hole. The Panthers have opened 0-2 in the Big East only seven times since joining the league in 1982-83. And the grand total of those slow starts• One NIT bid, in 1983-84.

DePaul could cure Pitt's ills. The Panthers haven't lost to DePaul in 75 years, and they own a perfect 7-0 mark against the Blue Demons since 2005-06.

When Pitt traveled to DePaul last season, the Panthers left with their most lopsided road victory ever in a Big East game (80-50).

DePaul is improved from last season (7-23) under second-year coach Oliver Purnell, but the Blue Demons still were picked last in the Big East preseason coaches' poll. They are 2-53 in the Big East since 2008-09, including 1-27 at home, most recently an 87-68 loss to top-ranked Syracuse on Sunday.

As the Panthers return to DePaul, they are tied for last place in the Big East and a No. 10 seed (i.e., bubble team) in ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology.

Note: Point guard Tray Woodall (abdomen) met with team doctors and didn't practice Tuesday. His status is uncertain for DePaul. "He doesn't feel like he's able to do the things he needs to do," Dixon said. ... Sophomore center Talib Zanna (concussion) practiced at full strength yesterday.

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