January 08, 2016

Pittsburgh and Notre Dame don't have much room to improve offensively, so both teams have turned their focus to playing consistently good defense.

Maybe that will start happening next week.

Lock-down defense doesn't figure to be in the cards Saturday in South Bend, where the 24th-ranked Panthers play their first true road game against the Fighting Irish in a battle of two of the nation's most efficient offenses.

Long known for a deliberate pace and heavy focus on defense, Pitt (13-1, 2-0 ACC) has opened things up. Though the Panthers are still in the bottom 30 percent in pace in Division I, it's a big step up from being in the bottom 15 each of the last six seasons.

Pitt averaged 67.6 points through 14 games last season and is almost 18 ahead of that right now, putting up 85.3 per game after Wednesday's 89-84 win over Georgia Tech.

"It seems like everyone is aggressive, and trying to score," the Yellow Jackets' Marcus Georges-Hunt said of Pitt. "They don't have that go-to guy, but everyone is a threat. They're always moving and you can't really play catchup with them.

"You have to keep your head on a swivel."

The Panthers, however, have played just once outside Pittsburgh city limits, and Wednesday's performance on the other end of the floor - Georgia Tech shot 48.5 percent - has Jamie Dixon concerned heading into a stretch of four of six away from home.

"We've got to defend better when we start to go on the road," he said.

The Irish (10-4, 1-1) are already familiar with unfriendly environments, playing at Illinois on Dec. 2 before opening their ACC slate with last Saturday's 77-66 loss at then-No. 5 Virginia, then bouncing back Thursday with an 82-54 rout at Boston College.

Notre Dame held the Eagles to 33.3 percent shooting five days after the Cavaliers shot 57.1 percent.

"Our challenge the last couple of days was improving defensively," coach Mike Brey said. "My challenge was: 'You play so good offensively. Why can't you have each other's back more on the defensive end?'"

Brey's hardly out of line in his assessment of his team's offense. Though the Irish are about 70 spots behind Pitt in points per game (78.4) thanks to a pace Pitt's recent teams would be familiar with, they only trail Duke and North Carolina nationally in points per 100 possessions (1.20).

Notre Dame shot a season-high 62.3 percent against Boston College, and it heads into the weekend ninth in D-I at 50.4 percent. Pitt's a few spots behind at 49.7.

"I think offensively we're in tune," said Zach Auguste, the Irish's leading rebounder (9.9 per game) and second-leading scorer (13.4). "I think we're playing great basketball, great passing and great shooters. We were in a great offensive flow and it's fun to play with each other."

Auguste will have his hands full on both ends with Michael Young (16.9 ppg) and Jamel Artis (15.8), while the matchup of point guards should be perhaps the game's most intriguing. Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson has totaled 35 points, 15 assists and hit eight 3-pointers in his first two ACC games, while Pitt's James Robinson lacks gaudy scoring numbers (10.8 ppg) but leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 6.25.

"He's one of the most underrated players in the country," Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. "He just knows how to play ... he looks like he's been here for about 14 years but he makes the right play all the time."

Robinson had 15 points, 10 assists and one turnover while Artis and Young combined for 36 points in Pitt's 76-72 win over the No. 8 Irish in last season's lone meeting.

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