Robert Morris-Pittsburgh Preview
By KATE HEDLIN
(AP) -- Pittsburgh has been bringing Khem Birch along slowly, but the freshman may be blossoming quicker than the Panthers anticipated.
Birch and the 17th-ranked Panthers will host Robert Morris on Sunday night, trying to improve to 30-0 all-time against the Colonials.
Pitt cruised to one of its easier wins of the season Friday, beating Penn 78-58. The Panthers (4-1) were coming off a four-point win over La Salle on Tuesday following their loss to Long Beach State on Nov. 16.
Senior guard Ashton Gibbs scored a team-high 16 points while Birch added 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Birch, starting in place of center Dante Taylor (migraine), had totaled eight points in 39 minutes over the first four games. He scored 14 on Friday in the second half alone, and wound up playing 28 minutes.
"As the game went on, I got into a flow," he said.
Birch, a McDonald's All-American, is expected to become a key part of Pittsburgh's offense, but had been playing limited minutes as he adjusted to the college game.
"He's got a good feel, so there's things that you can grow with and build with," coach Jamie Dixon said. "That's something you can't teach."
Birch's increased role came after Taylor took a hit to the head in the Panthers' victory over LaSalle. Taylor's status for Sunday is uncertain.
Even if Taylor returns, significant minutes from Birch will likely be necessary with starting forward Lamar Patterson completing a two-game suspension handed down by Dixon for disciplinary reasons. Patterson is averaging 7.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 25.0 minutes per game.
J.J. Moore started in Patterson's place Friday and finished with 12 points and six rebounds.
Pitt has been outrebounded in two of its last three games and the improvement of its inside game could open things up more for Gibbs, who is averaging 19.0 points but shooting 38.5 percent. He did connect on 4 of 6 3-point attempts Friday.
As part of the Philly Hoop Group Classic, the Panthers have shared three opponents with Robert Morris (4-1), which has won two straight since losing to the Quakers on Nov. 19. The Colonials defeated La Salle 51-44 on Friday despite shooting 28.0 percent.
Robert Morris outscored the Explorers 23-11 at the free-throw line and had a 45-30 advantage on the boards, grabbing 15 offensive rebounds. Junior guard Velton Jones scored 14 points and Russell Johnson added 12.
Robert Morris is shooting 41.9 percent this season, but is holding opponents to 40.5 percent. Jones leads the team with 19.4 points per game.
Pittsburgh is 29-0 against Robert Morris, winning the last 11 by an average of 23.5 points. Gibbs scored 20 points in the Panthers' 74-53 victory last November. Jones shot 3 of 13 and finished with seven points.
Updated November 26, 2011