Pittsburgh-Notre Dame Preview
By NOEY KUPCHAN
(AP) -- Pittsburgh is coming off another shocking home loss in non-conference play, and things aren't likely to get any easier with the start of its Big East schedule.
The 22nd-ranked Panthers could be at risk of suffering back-to-back losses for the first time in nearly two years as they visit Notre Dame on Tuesday night.
Pitt (11-2) didn't face a ranked team during its non-conference slate but was far from impressive. Besides five of their wins coming by 10 points or less, the Panthers were stunned at home by two inferior programs.
They had a string of 58 consecutive home victories over non-conference opponents snapped with an 86-76 defeat to Long Beach State on Nov. 16. On Friday, they were handed a 59-54 loss to a Wagner team which hadn't beaten a Top 25 opponent in 33 years.
"It's disappointing; I thought we were ready to go," coach Jamie Dixon said. "We definitely took a step back and it was hard to watch. We'll get back to work and get ready for Notre Dame. It's our first league game and we have to be better prepared and I have to do a better job of getting our guys ready to go."
Dixon's team hasn't dropped consecutive games since Jan. 31 and Feb. 3, 2010 - losses at South Florida and West Virginia - and regrouping in South Bend could prove difficult.
The Irish (8-5) have won 27 straight home games, including 9-0 last season against Big East foes. Plus, Notre Dame has beaten ranked Pittsburgh teams in the last three meetings, including a 56-51 road win Jan. 24 when the Panthers were No. 2. Pitt has not lost four straight in this series since it began in 1927.
The Irish have won three of four overall, with the lone loss coming 69-58 to then-No 18 Indiana on Dec. 17. Notre Dame bounced back two days later to post its highest scoring output in more than four years, routing Sacred Heart 106-65.
"This game let us get our confidence up before the Big East starts because every game is a big game from here on out," said sophomore Eric Atkins, who had 13 points and a career high-tying nine assists. "We got a big win and got out of here and are ready for Pittsburgh."
Atkins, along with injured forward Tim Abromaitis and senior Scott Martin, was named a captain Monday.
"Since we lost Tim (for the season), Eric has had a stronger voice in our locker room and proven to be a leader for us both in games and in practices," coach Mike Brey told the school's official website. "As we begin Big East play, I thought that it was important for Scott to have someone alongside him who will share this role with him on the court."
Pittsburgh, too, has been hampered by injuries and continues to play without point guard Travon Woodall. The 5-foot-11 junior, who was averaging 14.1 points and 8.3 assists before suffering groin and abdominal injuries, is all but certain to miss his seventh consecutive game.
Woodall's absence seems to have taken a toll on Big East preseason player of the year Ashton Gibbs, who had 14 points Friday and was 1 for 7 from 3-point range.
Gibbs shot 42.9 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 19.1 points over his first seven games, but those averages are down to 29.5 percent and 15.0 points with Woodall sidelined.
Conversely, Jack Cooley has gotten hot for Notre Dame, averaging 18.8 points and 9.0 rebounds over the last four games.
The Irish have been outscored by average of 20.0 points in three meetings with Top 25 teams this season - all away from home. However, they've taken six straight versus ranked opponents at Purcell Pavilion.
Updated December 26, 2011