By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — While some wondered early this season whether the Pitt men’s basketball team would make a ninth straight NCAA Tournament or have to settle for the NIT, the Panthers have played so well lately that they’re on the verge of setting a record for the program.
No. 9 Pittsburgh (15-2) has won eight straight and 11 of 12 overall, but the Panthers are going for a 6-0 Big East start for the first time. Pitt faces No. 12 Georgetown (13-3, 4-2) Wednesday night at 7 at the Petersen Events Center.
This is the 73rd matchup in the all-time series that the Hoyas lead 39-33, but Pitt has won three straight and is 3-1 home. The Panthers and Georgetown have met in two of the past three Big East Tournament title games.
“They’re a tough team to guard, so we have to do a good job on screens and definitely on the back door,” Pitt sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs said. “And they can shoot the ball, so we have to contest their shots as well.
“So, it’s going to be tough for us, but if we can contest their shots and just play hard and do what Coach Dixon says I think we’ll be fine.”
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon believed that Georgetown’s starting five is as good as any in the country, and with a decided height advantage could provide the Panthers with various matchup problems. Dixon didn’t feel that way despite how well the Hoyas have performed this season.
“We like tough guys and strong guys and quick guys, and they can make up for things,” Dixon said. “We’ll make adjustments if we need to, but we’ll play it like it is. With Monroe, his passing has really improved, and he gets other guys shots. So, that makes him even more dangerous.”
Nearly 6-foot-4 junior Austin Freeman leads Georgetown with 15.9 points per game, while 6-11 sophomore Greg Monroe has 14.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per contest. Chris Wright, a 6-1 junior point guard, is at 14.3 points and four assists, while 6-2 sophomore Jason Clark scores 10.9 points per game.
The other starter is 6-9 junior forward Julian Vaughn with 8.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per contest. The top reserves are 6-7 frosh forward Hollis Thompson and 6-10 sophomore Henry Sims, but neither contributes much statistically. Thompson plays about 20 minutes a game, while Sims plays less than 10.
Gibbs believed that Georgetown’s offense still thrives on Monroe’s performance, but since Freeman has been playing so well with strong support from Wright and Clark the Panthers will need a team effort to secure a victory.
Dixon didn’t hold back while praising the Hoyas, either. He was especially effusive in discussing Freeman, noting that he has improved off the dribble and playing without the ball.
“With Monroe, Wright, and Freeman is playing as well as anybody in the Conference,” Dixon said. “So, they’re a very good team and a very talented team and a well-coached team. We have to be ready for them. … (And) they do provide us with some different challenges.
“They’re so unique in how they play. So, we’re not always comfortable with playing them, but we’ll be ready. Monroe is playing more on the perimeter now, while Vaughn is at the five this year. Monroe goes into the middle occasionally, but he’s on the perimeter much more.”
That means Pitt 6-10 junior center Gary McGhee will face a stiff challenge.
“Monroe has good hands for somebody his size, and he has good post moves,” McGhee said. “He’s real versatile. He can shoot a jump shot or drive, so he’s tough to cover. We’ll probably switch, because he goes from the four to five.
“But I’ll be on him for a while. (And) it doesn’t matter whether he faces the basket or is in the post, because I can get out on him or use my body when he comes inside. So, I’ll need to look at both those things to cover him.”
Pitt frosh Dante Taylor, a 6-9 backup to McGhee, also will play a pivotal role in the game against Georgetown. While he hasn’t been scoring a lot of points, Taylor’s defense and rebounding will be crucial.
“He’s playing really well, and he continues to improve,” Dixon said. “He had a good practice (Monday), and he’s been rebounding well. But he’s really a good defender for a freshman, and that’s rare, especially for a big guy.
“But I think both post guys are playing well and doing what we’ve told them to do. … So, as long as Dante defends, which I know he will, that’s a big part of it as far as his playing time is concerned.”
Taylor needs to get a lot of playing time against Georgetown, because if that happens it means he’s playing well and Pitt is successful.