PITTSBURGH — Ashton Gibbs understands the pressure that comes with being named the preseason Big East Player of the Year. The Pittsburgh senior guard welcomes the challenge, believing he can do for the Panthers what Kemba Walker did for Connecticut a year ago and lead a talented but inexperienced team to a national title.
Two months before the madness begins, Gibbs would settle for leading struggling Pitt to a victory. Any victory.
The Panthers (11-5, 0-3 Big East) have tumbled from the top 10 to the bottom of arguably the nation's toughest conference in six short weeks. Pitt is riding a four-game losing streak into Wednesday's matchup with improved Rutgers (9-7, 1-2), the longest skid of coach Jamie Dixon's nine-year tenure.
"All the stuff that we're doing wrong is just little things we can tweak," forward Lamar Patterson said. "We feel like we can tweak them and we'll be alright."
Pitt begins a brutal two-week stretch on Saturday that includes games at No. 25 Marquette and top-ranked Syracuse in addition to hosting No. 14 Louisville and No. 11 Georgetown.
The Panthers have already matched last year's Big East loss total, when they went 15-3 and were regular season conference champions. If they can't turn it around soon, the program's run of 10 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances could be in jeopardy.
While Dixon has tried to keep the team upbeat in practice, his players are hearing it anyway. Patterson cringes a little bit when he sees an incoming Skype call from former Panthers.
"We have little conversations and they're asking (what's wrong) and they just tell us what we need to do," Patterson said.
Not that the Panthers need reminding.
Gibbs has no problem pointing to his team's problems, namely lackluster defense and shoddy ballhandling, two things that are typically among the program's strengths. Pitt is the winningest team in the Big East over the last decade, doing it with a group of blue collar players who took every opponent foray into the lane as a personal affront.
Not this team.
Point guard Tray Woodall's lingering groin and abdominal injury has forced Gibbs to shoulder most of the ballhandling duties and the interior defense has become almost nonexistent particularly after highly touted freshman forward Khem Birch abruptly left the program in mid-December.
Gibbs is averaging 16.7 points per game but can't seem to find his shot. He's making just 38 percent of his field goals and 36 percent of his 3-point attempts, both career-lows.
While Dixon allows part of the issue is the 35 minutes a game Gibbs is logging, Gibbs isn't so sure. He played 34 minutes a game two years ago, though he played most of those off the ball.
Now he finds himself trying to create his own shot while also making sure his teammates are getting involved. Throw in his defensive responsibilities and it's a lot to juggle for a player hoping to prove he can play in the NBA despite being generously listed at 6-foot-2.
"It's tough but at the end of the day, I'm trying to step up to the challenge as best I can," he said. "I've got to do my job and everybody will follow my lead. ... I'm going to worry about what I've got to do first and then go from there."
Getting Woodall back would help. He has played just once since injuring himself during an awkward fall against Duquesne on Nov. 30 and his status remains a bit of a mystery. Dixon admitted Tuesday he's "not quite sure" where Woodall is at in his recovery.
Until Dixon knows, the Panthers will turn to freshmen John Johnson and Cameron Wright to fill in the gaps. Johnson can fill it up at times while Wright is the team's best backcourt defender.
Yet neither has played in the Big East crucible. The energy they bring to the floor seems to dissipate late in games. Pitt has led by at least seven points in each of its four straight losses, with some of the collapses coming in the final moments.
None, perhaps, were more painful than last week's 84-81 loss to lowly DePaul. The Panthers led by four with 17 seconds to play only to suffer a rare meltdown. DePaul's Brandon Young scored the game's final seven points — including beating Gibbs off the dribble twice — to send Pitt to its longest losing streak since 1999-2000.
Dixon refuses to panic but knows there are red flags everywhere. Normally one of the most intimidating teams in the nation, Pitt is allowing Big East opponents to shoot 46 percent from the field. It's a very un-Pittlike number, one the Panthers know need to change quickly.
Things have become so problematic Dixon is considering scrapping the man-to-man defense he's employed since the day he took over for Ben Howland in favor of a zone that puts less pressure on his backcourt.
Dixon says he hasn't taken a good look at the Big East standings. Not a bad idea considering the Panthers are just one of two teams still winless in conference play.
If they can't get it together against Rutgers, things could turn ugly quickly.
"We just need to play better as a team," Dixon said. "We're going to play good people. There's going to be good people throughout. What we do is the important factor."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company