- So Blair had a huge game in Chicago.
- Then turned around and had a not so huge game against WVU (Pitt finally figures out how to win without him, though).
So I’m going to talk mostly about that WVU game that just wrapped up today. The general consensus is that it’s an ugly win, but we’ll take it. Sam Young is your game high scorer, however the only really noticeable guys on the court were the ones in stripes. Both sides had significant foul trouble to star players. Both sides kept looking in shock after a whistle (c’mon. After 30 some calls already, you can get the point that the refs are calling a tight game. Stop looking at them like they just told you the Pirates were winning a championship this year and just play.) I guess that’s the sign of a decent ref: both sides want to punch you equally.
But I digress. I think an emerging story line is Sam Young. He had his best game in awhile, so naturally I’m going to turn around and hammer him. True, he had 20 points tonight, but his shot selection was still terrible. The fact that he forces shots is well documented. But look at this stat: 1.4 assists per game. That evens out to 32 assists total this season. Compare that to 326 shot attempts this season. Gil Brown, his backup, averages 1.2 assists per game with 4 less minutes to work with. So it’s not that his position that dictates that he take shots. He just makes bad decisions with the ball. A 1/1.7 assist to turnover ratio proves that. That’s right. Sam takes away a possession almost twice as much as he helps someone else score. I swear he gets a look in his eye where you know he’s forgotten the other 4 guys with Pitt on their chest. The defense can quadruple team him and force him to put up a crazy shot, but gosh darn it he’s putting up that shot. I’ve also noticed an even more disturbing trend with Sam: his slagging defense. I counted a half a dozen times in the WVU game where he was late to give help, or he lost his man and couldn’t recover in time. It was even worse at DePaul. He’s never been a lock down defender, but the past few games have been horrible. The kicker is that most of this is just mental. You have to watch the ball and your man. Sam’s proven in the past he can do it. He’s just been off in la-la land for some reason for the past week, and it’s time for him to return. I hate digging into athletes for performance. I debated writing this. After all, he’s an amateur in college. But this isn’t a case of beating up a guy for lack of talent. That would be the pot calling the kettle black. This a case of lack of effort, and I think that’s always fair game.
Ok, stepping down from my soapbox, there were some other stories from this one. Pitt finally won a game where Blair was in foul trouble. The problem is that WVU isn’t like Villanova and Louisville. They aren’t the slashing team those two are. In the previous two games, Blair got into foul trouble because of the type of game the refs were calling. In both instances, the refs were consistently calling fouls on clutching and grabbing and knocking guys driving the lane, and Blair struggled to react to it. In the WVU game, he got into foul trouble because he got a couple of ticky tack fouls guarding a post man (he fouled mostly guards in the first two games) and mouthed off to the ref one too many times. There’s a big difference there. If we can win a game where the refs make life easy for the guards driving the lane, I’ll be a lot more relieved.
Finally, I just wanted to comment on something positive (this has been a really negative post so far). We just knocked off a top 20 RPI team twice in a season. That’ll look good on a tourney resume. Plus, it’s always nice to beat WVU.
stats from espn.com
Its been awhile for writing about Pitt Basketball (I know I’m overdue for the Pens, too. That will be tomorrow.). After the Villanova loss, it became utterly apparent what our weakness is: frontcourt depth. Two losses. Two games where DeJuan Blair is in foul trouble. It’s a pretty strong correlation. Every officiating crew calls the game differently, and we’ve run into two games where the game has been called in a way that makes it difficult to win. Both losses came in games where a lot of body fouls and reaches were called, and we played guard heavy teams that could use that to their advantage. It was made even more frustrating in the Villanova game because the hacking fouls underneath were not being called, which would have helped even things out (23-13 fouls is a pretty big disparity). Now, were these bad officiating crews? Not at all. Both crews called body fouls and reach ins all game. They were consistent, and that’s all you can ask for from officials. Just because it made the game more difficult for us doesn’t mean its wrong. We just need to react better to the way the game is being called (and as a side note, there will be a lot crews that call that kind of game in the tournament so we need to be ready). So that’s the problem. What’s the solution? We need to get better at altering a shot without making contact. If you’re a post player in a game like that, you need to establish position and make the driving player go around you for a tougher shot. It means shooting percentage will go up a bit for the other team, but it also means your fouls will go down which will help greatly at the end of the game. Or, you could do the easy thing and make sure the guards keep their man in front of them and take away the penetration in the first place. Which we’ve also been struggling with.
I see some good matchups coming up for us. I think WVU will be a challenge again because of their athleticism (boy it didn’t take Huggins long to get his style of players in there, did it?) and Cincy is coming on strong in recent weeks. But, I think being at home gives us the advantage in those two and we head into Hartford on a bit of a roll.
A couple of other Pitt athletic side notes:
- Pitt rolls in arguably its worst recruiting class under Wanny. That means only a top 30 or 40 class depending on who you ask. Not bad to settle for. Plus, you never know with these HS kids.
- Cavanaugh leaves for the Jets to be an ‘offensive assistant likely working with quarterbacks’. Offensive assistant in the NFL is nothing to sneeze at, but I’m not sure if that’s a promotion from offensive coordinator of a BCS conference NCAA team. This smacks of Matt being shown the door with the courtesy to let him find another job and leave instead of being fired. I think Pitt sticks with the pro style offense. A lot of kids are here because of it. I’d be floored if we go spread with the new guy. But a little more creativity and playcalling to reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the players would be nice.
- In the oft-ignored women’s basketball spectrum, congrats to Shavonte Zellous for becoming the third woman in Pitt Basketball history to score 2,000 points. She’s averaging a little under 25 points per game. That means she’ll be right at about the record of 2,312 at the end of the year depending on how far Pitt goes in the tourneys. For those that don’t follow Pitt women’s basketball (that’s all of you I assume), this should be something exciting to watch.
I’m still confident. Pitt is all about a system. They make their living slowing the tempo way down, and then being very efficient on offense (don’t believe me? Ken Pomeroy’s latest rankings have Pitt as the most efficient offense in college basketball right now) and playing great defense. It’s a good plan because it gives you a chance against any type of opponent. The only stumbling block is when a team can stand in our way of being efficient on offense. This can be done one of two ways: 1) rebounding extremely well (easier said than done against our frontcourt. I like our chances against anyone if we stay out of foul trouble) or 2) force us into turnovers (see: Louisville). I think we handled Louisville’s press extremely well at times, and other times we let them force us into stupid mistakes. I think Levance was the usual solid ball-handling self but, more often than not, the Cards forced Jermaine Dixon to take the ball up the floor and he made some mental mistakes. Either Jermaine’s gatta get better and handling the press (I know this is his first season of D1 ball, so I’ll give him a break), or we have to find an alternative (Ashton Gibbs?). If not, any team with a good press will just deny Fields the ball and force Jermaine into mistakes. It’s not like that was the only killer, though. Louisville also out-rebounded us by getting our bigs in foul trouble, and they caught us on a poor shooting night. Taking all that into account, I think only losing by 6 is a good sign in retrospect.
I’m not surprised at the Syracuse game at all. Syracuse came out for the majority of the game with Jim Boehiem’s trusty 2-3 zone. That opens up the floor for offensive rebounds (not smart against a great rebounding team like Pitt), and we crushed them on the boards and ran away with it. Syracuse was only going to do as well as it’s 3-point shooters would take them. They might get some circus shots from Flynn driving the lane and they might get an open look for Onuaku once every few minutes, but they would never score consistently enough to beat Pitt. I’m sure Syracuse has a gripe with the officiating, and they have a point. The refs called a game tailor made for Pitt’s style. They called nothing inside. They kept their eye on procedure fouls (traveling, carry, etc) and rewarded physical play. If the two teams ever play again, I’m sure the score would be closer. But I still think Syracuse is a great matchup for Pitt and will be as long as the two coaches keep their philosophies.
So Pitt wins a couple of games that at times were a lot closer than most fans would like. I think most Pitt fans went into these two games expecting the #1 team in the country to dispense with a couple of bottom feeder Big East teams by at least 20. Not gunna happen. Every team gets up for playing #1. We’ll get everyone’s best shot for the rest of the season. Besides, we rarely blow anyone out with our style anyway. USF ended up shooting 47.7% from the field, but it was higher than 60% at points in the second half. They couldn’t miss. It’s incredible that we can take a team playing like that, and actually shoot better than them. It’s a good sign.
But, there are still some areas for concern. USF played a lot of really aggressive man defense that was successful. I’ve been saying for a while that zone is not the way to beat the Panthers. You’ve got to put some pressure on their inexperienced backcourt (Fields being the exception), and force turnovers. That’s the best way to deny touches to the terrific frontcourt (Blair, Young, Biggs, etc). I think USF also did some good things rebounding. They were excellent at boxing out and hung with Pitt on the boards for most of the first half, and we saw how that had an effect on Blair/Young’s point production. Blair had 4 at the half, and Young didn’t score from inside the arc until the last moments of the game. If a team has some more strength inside and can out-rebound them, Pitt may be in trouble. Finally, Pitt was getting torched by some dribble penetration. USF’s offense was based on the dribble drive and it really put pressure defensively on the frontcourt. Biggs, Blair and Young were all in foul trouble at the half and looked less than stellar trying to stop someone smaller and quicker than them. Maybe that’s something to work on before we hit some REAL dribble penetration teams like Marquette, Villanova or someone come March.
Free throw shooting remains a concern. Dixon gave the explanation that most guys he recruits are defensive specialists, and the real good free throw shooters are finesse players. Well, when Aaron Gray came here, he wasn’t very strong with the ball. When Antonio Graves came here, he had trouble with his outside shot (remember the two games where he missed shots at the buzzer?). Players come with flaws and leave as better basketball players. That’s part of Dixon’s job description. If players aren’t improving their averages at the line while they play for him, that’s his responsibility. Dixon’s a phenomenal coach, and no one can deny his ability to develop talent. But he’s wrong to dismiss a hole like this.
But, alas, I don’t want to leave you with a negative feeling while we still have the #1 team in America. I still maintain that this is the most well rounded team I’ve seen from Pitt. We can hurt you in a lot of different ways offensively while still maintaining the tough defense we’ve always had. We can play well against a lot of different styles. That doesn’t mean we’ll go undefeated through the whole season, but it does mean we’re going into the tournament as a real tough out.
So this is definitely a good cookie for Pitt fans. It’s nice to get over a milestone every once and awhile just to remind yourself that you’re making progress. Now the question becomes whether or not we can make it over another hump come March (Believe me. This will only intensify the questions around that time of year). But, enjoy it for now. It’s been a long time coming (101 years).
I’m sure coach Dixon will try to keep a level head on the team. He’s already made some quotes in the paper. But the reality is that he has no control over it. The players either have a frame of mind where they view this as a step in an ongoing process or a destination. No one knows how they will react. No one can change how they will react, either. So I’m a little nervous. Even though there’s a bit of a lull in the schedule coming up.
This is a solid team with a lot of strengths (depth, rebounding, strength, leadership, etc), but they still have some gaping holes to fill like outside shooting, rebounding from players not from the Hill District and free throw shooting. They may have a #1 next to their name, but there’s a long way to go to turn that into something truly lasting. I still don’t think many people see Pitt as more than one of a long list of contenders this year. I think most people would still favor UNC in a game against Pitt. We just finally benefited from the crazy unwritten ranking rules that drive me nuts. I think this Pitt team is one of the better ones I’ve seen (and I’ve been following the team since you could get court side seats in Fitzgerald Field House the day of the game). They have the tight defense and dominant rebounding that Pitt’s built its successful run around, but they have a little bit more bite on offense than we’ve had in recent memory. Most of it due to finally having a guy who can take over a game if need be. They sure do have a lot of potential. They deserve to be the team that breaks down the #1 ranked barrier. But that will only make it all the more painful to watch if they squander it.
- Pitt survives against Florida State to remain undefeated. Good to see that we can manufacture points and play defense when the shooting isn’t there.
- Some fans wonder whether that was an off night or Pitt just stinks at shooting in general. I think Fittipaldo has a point at the end with Gibbs. That’s the future threat there. All you need is one zone buster to extend a defense and Gibbs may very well be that guy. But he’s a freshman. I’m withholding judgement on whether he can develop into the outside threat Pitt could use. Even if Gibbs is a dead-eye, though, it still helps to have another one in case Ashton has an off night.
- Jermaine Dixon called the Big East schedule ‘hell’. That might be an understatement.
So the Panthers made it through another non-conference schedule unbeaten. Some may brush this off as a factor of another weak non-con where we barely left the Pete. I’ll admit Pitt has a fairly soft schedule to start, but with the parity in college basketball, 12-0 is still an accomplishment. Just ask Gonzaga who’s licking their wounds after choking against Portland State. The bottom line is that Pitt played a zone defense (Fairleigh Dickinson) and a man (Akron), a slow tempo team (Vermont) and an up-tempo team (Duquesne), a fairly deep team (Florida St.) and a not so deep team (UMBC). You get the point. Pitt played a wide variety of styles in its non-conference schedule and found a way to adapt to the game. They may not have been the most talented teams in their style of game, but Pitt has now seen a variety of different philosophies and has practiced defending them.
I’ve heard a lot of people criticize the Pitt program like the Post-Gazette letter writer above. They either criticize the fact that 1) Pitt has yet to land a really highly regarded blue chip recruit or 2) Pitt has never been a really good shooting team. I think both of these points miss the concept of Pitt basketball. Pitt basketball is all about efficiency. It’s all about maximizing how much they get from each possession by not turning the ball over and taking high percentage shots. It’s about limiting their opponents possessions by getting rebounds and playing great defense. Pitt won’t recruit a bunch of sharp shooters because unless their name is Gerry McNamara, it’s a much more efficient offense to pound the ball inside. This also means that Pitt’s style of play naturally discourages one player from taking over a game and driving the lane on every play. That may be a reason for criticism #1 (but that changes next year when Dante Taylor gets here). It’s not the most entertaining way to play. Pitt will never average 90-100 points a game (with anyone in the current coaching tree that is). They won’t even average 80. But they’ll win consistently.
I think Pitt will have the usual season. They’ll play consistently. They’ll have some off nights and drop a few games in the Big East. I think they’ll get a pretty good seed in the tourney. Will this be the year they reach the final four or even just get past the sweet 16? I’m not sure. The NCAA tourney is a funny place where the better team usually wins but not at a very consistent rate. Pitt won’t be blown out by anyone. Their slow efficient grinding way of playing will dictate that. But that means they won’t blow anyone else out, either. That’s had a funny way of biting them when a good team can make a push in the final few minutes.