PITTSBURGH - Pitt freshman guard James Robinson plays with a serenity that belies his age. Robinson simply doesn't get rattled, one of the big reasons coach Jamie Dixon didn't hesitate to immediately throw Robinson into the starting lineup when the season began two months ago.
Yet even Robinson, it turns out, has a breaking point.
Driving down the lane in the first half on Monday against No. 14 Cincinnati, Robinson rose for a lay-up when he was smacked Bearcats guard Sean Kilpatrick. When the referee's whistle blew, Robinson snarled "it's about time" after spending the first 10 minutes of the game getting pushed, prodded and provoked by Cincinnati without the benefit of a foul.
Call it Robinson's "Welcome to the Big East" moment.
"It was a learning experience," Robinson said.
And the Panthers hope it also served as a wake-up call. Pitt led by eight at the half before fading in a 70-61 loss, wearing down under the Bearcats' relentless pressure.
"We've executed very well but we haven't finished some games down the stretch and that's what we realize," Dixon said. "But we know why we haven't and that's what we have to address."
The 24th-ranked Panthers (12-2, 0-1) likely need to do it quickly or face the prospect of falling into another early hole that could be difficult to escape. Pitt begins a two-game road trip today at Rutgers (9-3, 0-1) before playing No. 15 Georgetown on Tuesday.
Anything less than a split would have Pitt in a 0-3 hole in conference play a year after the Panthers lost their first seven Big East games en route to missing the NCAA tournament for the first time on Dixon's watch.
Dixon believes his team is better - and healthier - than the one that stumbled out of the gate last winter. He's also not quite ready to label this swing as crucial, perhaps because every road game is crucial regardless of where it falls on the schedule.
"Every year everybody in our conference looks at the schedule and they go 'Where are the gimmes?' And there aren't any and it's just the way it is," Dixon said. "We're used to that and we've had a good history of that but we know this is going to be a tough team, win or lose."
Though Pitt is unbeaten at the Rutgers Athletic Center since 2001, the Scarlet Knights came into the Petersen Events Center and drubbed Pitt 62-39 a year ago. It was the lowest point in a season filled with more than a few valleys. The Panthers shot just 21 percent from the floor and ended up with more turnovers (15) than made baskets (12).
This will be Rutgers' first home game since coach Mike Rice returned from a three-game suspension. The Scarlet Knights went 3-0 without Rice, who also coached at Robert Morris. Rutgers lost at No. 7 Syracuse, 78-53, in his return.
Pitt forward J.J. Moore - whose 10 points led Pitt on that miserable night last year vs. Rutgers - insists he's not out looking for revenge.
"We try not to think about it a lot and let the past be the past," Moore said. "We're playing better this year and we're just trying to go back and get this win on the road."
No team has been more formidable in their away jerseys over the last decade-plus than the Panthers, who have the Big East's best road record (53-40) over the last 12 seasons. Yet they've gotten on a plane just once so far this year, splitting a pair of games in New York in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
The loss came to still unbeaten Michigan, 67-62, in a game Pitt managed to keep close all the way through.
That didn't quite happen against the Bearcats, who outscored the Panthers 44-27 over the final 20 minutes, controlling things at both ends of the floor. Pitt was outrebounded by nine (20-11) in the second half and couldn't hit a shot, missing all 10 of its 3-point attempts.
Dixon can deal with the misses. Getting pounded on the boards, however, is another matter.
"We did the things you want to do as far as taking care of the ball and getting pretty good shots," Dixon said. "We guarded well for a period of time but wore down the second half ... we just didn't get it done, we simply didn't get it done. We need to gain from that, learn from that."
The players maintain the soft December schedule - six games against teams from leagues that traditionally get just one bid to the NCAA tournament - wasn't an issue. Neither was the eight-day layoff before facing the Bearcats. Still, they understand there can't be another letdown if they want to make some noise in their final Big East season before heading to the ACC next summer.
"Our intensity has to get stronger, get better, because it was just one game," Moore said. "We don't want to hold our head down just for one game in the conference. Our intensity in the practice is getting way higher."