Pittsburgh has the nation's top rebounding differential after overwhelming its last four opponents on the boards.
It'll no longer have one of its promising young big men to keep that trend going.The 15th-ranked Panthers look to extend their winning streak to eight when they host South Carolina State on Saturday, a day after highly touted recruit Khem Birch left the program.Pitt (9-1) came into the season having won 48 of its last 52 non-conference regular season games, and added two more to that total before a stunning 86-76 loss to Long Beach State on Nov. 16.The Panthers haven't lost since, and much of the credit for their seven-game winning streak can be attributed to an ability to control the paint. Pittsburgh leads the nation in rebounding margin (13.0), including a whopping 19.2 per-game edge during its last four contests."It is what we do," coach Jamie Dixon said. "It is ingrained in our program. We recruit guys with a nose for the ball."Sophomore Lamar Patterson is proving he fits that description. One of five Panthers averaging at least 5.0 rebounds, the 6-foot-5 Patterson pulled down a career-high 10 in last Saturday's 74-68 win over Oklahoma State, to go along with 12 points and seven assists."We have a rebounding drill in practice where we throw each other around pretty good," said senior forward Nasir Robinson, averaging 16.7 points and 10.7 boards in Pitt's last three games. "We just go out and rebound and everything else takes care of itself."The Panthers, however, could need Patterson and Robinson to step it up even more now that Birch is gone. Only the second McDonald's All-American recruited by Dixon, Birch opted Friday to leave the team for personal reasons.Birch, thought to be mulling a transfer, averaged 4.4 points, 5.0 boards and a team-high 1.9 blocks in 15 minutes a game.Even with Birch gone, the Panthers should have little trouble taking care of business in a three-game stretch that precedes their Dec. 27 Big East opener at Notre Dame. Following Saturday's visit from South Carolina State (4-6), Pitt hosts St. Francis (PA) and Wagner before a three-day Christmas break. None of those opponents rank among the top 150 in Division I in rebounding differential.The Bulldogs have lost four in a row following a 4-2 start, and if their last two games are any indication, the Panthers should have plenty of chances for defensive rebounds. The Bulldogs shot 37.8 percent in those defeats, getting edged 42-29 on the boards in last Saturday's 87-57 loss at Gardner-Webb -- a team they beat three weeks earlier.SCSU's offense relies largely on senior guard Brandon Riley, who averages a team-high 20.9 points but was held to nine Saturday and committed five turnovers.Riley struggled considerably in his first look at a ranked opponent this season as well. He had 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting and nine turnovers in a 70-50 loss at then-No. 9 Baylor on Nov. 22.For a team known largely for its defense under Dixon, though, Pitt hasn't been causing many turnovers this season. The Panthers are forcing just 9.8 per game -- 336th out of 339 Division I teams.They're only giving it away 12.2 times per game themselves, though. Preseason Big East player of the year Ashton Gibbs had 17 points and one turnover last Saturday against the Cowboys."Gibbs just controls the basketball game. He is a very impressive player," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. "All they say about him is true. There is a great pace to his game."Gibbs is averaging 18.7 points to rank sixth in the Big East.Pitt has never faced the Bulldogs but is 20-0 all-time versus MEAC opponents.