Important three game stretch ahead of Pitt basketball

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Winners of 7 of the last 9 games, the Panthers face 3 games that can help improve their seeding in the NCAA Tournament

After dispatching Seton Hall on Monday night, Pitt is now 7-4 in the Big East, just one game out of first place. The Panthers now head into a pivotal three game stretch that will see them face three teams near them in the standings. First up is a road contest at Cincinnati, then a trip to Marquette a week later followed by a quick turnaround to face Notre Dame at the Pete two days later. All three figure to crack the field of 68 in March and while Pitt also should be in the Tournament, some wins here could give them a high enough seed to warrant a run to the Sweet 16.

Pitt travels to the Queen City to take on the Bearcats in the final regular season meeting between the two sides as members of the Big East. Cincy beat the Panthers on New Year's Eve at the Pete, the lone top-10 loss* at home since Pitt began playing there in 2002. What did Cincinnati do to beat Pitt? They won the battle on the boards 30-27 and their defense also stifled Pitt in the second half as the Panthers went over six minutes without a field goal (which improved the Bearcats' lead from two to ten). They also were very physical, getting to the line 35 times. Marquette comes next and the way the Golden Eagles beat the Panthers is similar in the way Cincinnati won. MU won on the boards, they got to the line, and their defense held Pitt without a field goad for an extended period. It also didn't hurt that Pitt went 13-26 from the free throw line. Finally, we get to witness the most painful game on Earth (most likely) as Notre Dame and Mike Brey's burn offense comes into the Pete. Expect the final score to be somewhere in the low 50s, if we're lucky. The Fighting Irish have won 4 straight over Pitt, but the Irish could be without Scott Martin, a player who can not only be physical in the paint and grab rebounds, but also shoot the 3 ball.

I don't think we'll see the same offensive production that Pitt put out on Monday. Coach Dixon will have these guys ready to go. Since he began coaching at Pitt, he's been swept five times, including twice last season. He knows how to rebound from a previous loss. But he will have to get these guys scoring, finishing shots at the rim, teaching Steven Adams that dunking is okay. Winning on the road in conference play is already a difficult task and as we've seen with this season in college basketball, anything can happen. The important areas to watch will be on the boards and at the free throw line. If Pitt can win the battle on the boards, they have a good shot to win most games. If they can do that as well as hit their free throws, something that has been an issue, even by Pitt's standards, the Panthers can come out of this stretch feeling pretty good.

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