February 05, 2016

After some unusual defensive hiccups, Virginia has two games' worth of evidence that it's back to the suffocating, possession-draining ways that carried it to the last two regular-season ACC titles.

For once, it might take some real effort to slow down Pittsburgh.

The ninth-ranked Cavaliers haven't lost in this series since Pitt joined the ACC, but they'll face a more offensively dangerous Panthers team as they look for a sixth straight win Saturday in a venue that's been brutal to top-10 opponents.

Virginia (18-4, 7-3) allowed the fewest points per game in the nation in each of the past two seasons, but Tony Bennett's team looked little like those previous groups while allowing 66.1 points per game and letting its opponents shoot 45.7 percent - 39.4 from 3-point range - through eight conference games.

Three losses to unranked opponents in a four-game stretch was the low point, but the Cavaliers have looked much more like their old selves in the past week. Virginia held then-No. 16 Louisville to 32.7 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers in a 63-47 road rout last Saturday, then dismantled Boston College in a 61-47 victory Wednesday.

''I think we did turn a corner, but I think it's important for us to keep our foot on the gas and keep pushing forward,'' leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon said after the Cavs held the Eagles to 26.5 percent from the field.

Virginia is 52-1 over the past three seasons when its opponent shoots 40 percent or worse.

"We've struggled. We've stumbled. We've worked hard," Bennett said. "But in this last week, we've gotten to the point we need to be at."

Things won't get any easier Saturday. Pitt is 14-2 against top-10 opponents at home since moving into the Petersen Events Center in November 2002.

"We've got a tremendous and challenging opportunity ahead of us at Pittsburgh," Bennett said. "We know when we're not right we can fall flat. We've been better defensively in the last few games, taken good shots, had a level of patience and rebounded better. That's the path we need to be on."

Pitt (17-4, 6-3) can relate to Louisville and Boston College's offensive struggles, as it's failed to crack the 50-point mark in three defeats to Virginia since joining the ACC. There were two three-point losses in 2014-15 before Brogdon led the way with 18 points in the Cavs' 61-49 win in Charlottesville last season.

This version of the Panthers is far more capable of putting the ball in the basket, though - and, at least relatively, in getting up the floor. In the nation's bottom 15 percent in pace for each of the past six seasons, Pitt still isn't exactly blazing up the court in the 28th percentile, but it's been quite efficient with the ball.

Only North Carolina and Duke average more points among ACC teams than the Panthers' 80.5, though that number was nearly five points higher prior to a 2-3 stretch in which they scored just 64 per game. Pitt's hoping Sunday's 90-71 win over a Virginia Tech team that beat the Cavaliers last month is a sign of things to come.

Jamie Dixon calling out his team for being outrebounded by 22 over the previous three games seemed to strike a chord.

"A couple of our past performances the last couple weeks, we've been out-physicaled,'' said forward Sheldon Jeter, who had a career-high 23 points in his first start of the season. ''A lot of people were called out. I was one of them.''

Jeter has totaled 18 points in the Panthers' losses. They're 13-0 when he scores at least eight.

Michael Young, Pitt's leading scorer at 17 per game, went scoreless in 21 minutes before fouling out against the Cavaliers last season.

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