Jamie Dixon isn’t used to Pittsburgh having much trouble early in the season, and his team’s latest uneven performance left him with plenty of concerns.
The ninth-ranked Panthers hope to put a closer-than-expected victory behind them and continue their November dominance at the Petersen Events Center on Wednesday night against Long Beach State.
Most sports books have installed Pitt as a 13 1/2-point home favorite.
Pitt (2-0) rolled past Albany 89-56 in its season opener on Friday, hitting 13 of 22 3-pointers and looking every bit like a Final Four contender as its starting backcourt of Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall combined for 46 points.
Two days later, the Panthers more closely resembled the team that’s made its share of early exits from the NCAA tournament under Dixon’s watch. Down by as many as six midway through the second half against Rider, Pitt needed a game-closing 16-5 run to escape with an 86-78 victory.
“We’re always concerned this time of year,” said Dixon, whose program is 41-0 in non-conference November home games since the Petersen Events Center opened in 2002. “We’ve got to get better. This better not be our best, put it that way.”
The Panthers have won 58 straight home games overall against non-Big East opponents since a January 2005 loss to Bucknell, a streak Gibbs is doing his best to extend. The senior has scored at least 21 points in both games while connecting on 9 of 21 3-pointers.
Pitt’s top scorer, however, was more pleased with his team’s defensive effort late against the Broncs. Rider scored just five points in the game’s final five minutes.
“We started getting stops. It wasn’t our best performance, but we got through it,” Gibbs said. “We knocked down some key shots and got stops.”
Despite the Panthers’ solid play down the stretch and 10 underclassmen still trying to jell, Dixon was a bit concerned by his team’s lack of its typical defensive intensity. Pitt has allowed its opponents to shoot 49.0 percent through two games and forced a total of 16 turnovers.
“We have so many young guys out there we’ve got to all be learning and listening and getting better,” Dixon said. “We had older guys make young men mistakes and we’ve got to get that changed.”
Long Beach State (1-0) has never met the Panthers, but it’s unlikely the 49ers – who only lost by five points to North Carolina at Chapel Hill last season – will be intimidated.
LBSU played a challenging non-conference slate in 2010-11, and it’s even tougher this season. After facing the Panthers, the 49ers visit 2011 NCAA tournament teams San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina and Xavier – all before Christmas.
That schedule makes it all the more significant for the 49ers not to slip up against teams they should beat, and a solid second half helped them survive their opener. Long Beach State trailed visiting Idaho 29-27 at halftime, but senior guards Casper Ware and Larry Anderson scored 24 of their 36 points in the second half to lead the way to a 69-61 win.
If the 49ers are to have any chance to shock the Panthers, they’ll likely need Ware to outplay Gibbs. The reigning Big West player of the year averaged 16.5 points in LBSU’s two games against ranked opponents last season, but also committed 11 turnovers.
Pitt has outrebounded its opponents 78-42 thus far.