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Pitt basketball readies for pressure test

| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Pitt forward Talib Zanna plays Cincinnati at Petersen Events Center Dec. 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

For a team whose leading scorer hasn't reached double digits in four games and isn't ranked among the top 30 in the Big East, there are other ways to win.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has preached fundamentals, especially rebounding and good defense, and his team has responded. The Panthers lead the conference in scoring defense (54.5 ppg) and rebounding defense (27.1 rpg).

That's perhaps the chief reason Pitt (16-4, 4-3), with top scorer Talib Zanna averaging 11.7 points per game but only 5.8 in the past four, has won three in a row entering its matchup Saturday against DePaul (10-8, 1-4) at Petersen Events Center.

But to continue its rise through the Big East standings, Pitt must resume another basic task: Protect the basketball.

“We have to handle the press. We have to know they are going to be coming at you,” Dixon said of the Blue Demons. “They want to get up and down and shoot quick, make you shoot quick.”

DePaul is third in the Big East in steals (9.56 per game), but Pitt counters with patience on offense and a plus-4.3 turnover margin, which is second in the conference.

Dixon said Providence tried to keep his players off balance Tuesday with pressure defensive tactics similar to what DePaul will try. Pitt remained calm and hit 51 percent of its field-goal attempts in a 68-64 victory.

“I thought we did a good job not settling for contested jump shots,” he said.

“They aren't the only team to pressure us this season,” said freshman guard James Robinson, who is averaging a team-high 28.1 minutes per game.

If the shooting percentage slips, Pitt needs to counter with strong defense, which it never displays often enough to suit Dixon.

“Our (defensive) numbers are pretty good,” he said. “They're OK. We know where our weaknesses lie, and we are attacking those constantly. We will never be satisfied. We've had as good a defensive team (as any team) in the country at certain times and haven't been satisfied.”

Before the Providence game, Pitt was sixth in the nation, allowing 53.9 points per game, but Providence beat that number by more than 10. Still, Pitt is No. 1 in the Big East.

Pitt's defense must be wary of forward Cleveland Melvin and guard Brandon Young, who are fifth and seventh in the Big East in scoring at 17.6 and 16.7 points. Both are three-year starters.

Robinson knows Young well after the two played together in AAU basketball on the nationally known Team Takeover.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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