Another Road Test in the Capital

Rebounding may be the key..

Hello from snow-covered Panther Hall, overlooking the Pete.

Sorry for the lack of the updates, but the start of the New Year makes things busy for everybody.

Anyway, our #5 Pitt Panthers are taking on the #19 Georgetown Hoyas tonight (ESPN/ESPN3 @ 7 pm EST)at the Verizon Center in D.C.

The first thing I’m curious about is how Pitt will play this game overall. In my opinion, they played one of their best games of the year on Saturday against Marquette after playing very sloppily against Providence. The shooting, passing, rebounding, and half-court offense were all spectacular. Pitt showed an incredible amount of patience in finding the open man. Marquette is definitely a better team than their record shows, as they thumped Notre Dame the other day. Another team I”m glad Pitt faced early and dealt with. Can Pitt keep it up though? That is my main concern. It’s easy to have a really good game and then have some lapses next game.

Georgetown, however, is in a little bit of a rut. They’ve lost three of their past four games in BE play, and the lone win was against Depaul. The Hoyas are going to be desperate for a win or their season will start to spiral badly. Nothing cures a rut like knocking out a top 5 team at home.

The #1 thing that jumps out at me from the stats is rebounding. Pitt is #3 in the country at 42.8 per game. Georgetown is sitting at 224th at 34.8. If Pitt can keep up its rebounding dominance, it gets a lot of second chances for its players to score points against a very good shooting team. Georgetown is 2nd in the country at field goal percentage, so every rebound Pitt gets is almost guaranteed points taken away.

While Pitt’s frontcourt may turn the tide of the game in rebounding and second chance points, the back court is what will be challenged defensively. The starting guards for Pitt and Georgetown are eerily similar. Georgetown’s Freeman(17.9 pts/game, 2.4 assists/game) and Pitt’s Gibbs (16.4 pts/game 3.8 assists/game) match up as the scoring leaders for each team. Pitt’s Wannamaker (12.9 pts/game, 5.3 assists/game) and Georgetown’s Wright (12.5 pts/game, 5.9 assists/game) match up as the opportunity makers for their teammates leading in assists. It will be very interesting to watch these matchups along with seeing how things swing when other players (Pitt’s Woodall, Georgetown’s Clark, for instance) step in to the line up.

Pitt’s last advantage is in it’s depth. I think the main difference between this team and the last great Pitt team (the 08/09 team) is that depth. When Dejuan Blair or others had foul trouble, the team struggled a bit to keep up the production on both sides of the ball. This team, however, does not have much of a drop off from its starters to its bench. Guys like Travon Woodall and Dante Taylor have started to really provide quality minutes for the team when the starters are off.  This team doesn’t have a true star though, and that might be a good thing. This season especially has shown that on any night a Pitt player can go off with a career night, and carry the team. While I’m slightly worried about this being Pitt’s second road game, I have confidence that Pitt can grind this one out with its rebounding and depth. This would be a solid road win before Pitt comes home to the Zoo for Seton Hall and top 5 Syracuse on Monday.

@Oaklandzoo on twitter will tweet some comments from the game from the Verizon Center, while I (@sta7ic) will be tweeting comments as the game goes on TV.

Hail to Pitt.

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Huge Recap

Well, if you hadn’t heard by now, Pitt is the Big East Tournament Champions, thanks to a beautiful run through the tournament that included victories over Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, and Georgetown. Sam Young was named tournament MVP after being named All Big-East First Team and Most Improved Player before the tournament even began. He had himself a decent showing in the tournament, finishing with the 2nd-highest point total ever in one tournament. The wins catapulted Pitt from an 8/9 seed in the NCAA tournament to a 4 seed, with a matchup with Oral Roberts looming in the first round on Thursday.

This was a phenomenal team effort from the Panthers, especially on the defensive end. Fans of past Pitt teams had been accustomed to seeing teams that fought for every rebound, every loose ball, and played tough, physical defense. That seemed to be lacking near the end of this season, but the Panthers really found their identity and their stride in this tournament. Even though we only beat Cincinnati by 6, those of you who watched the game witnessed a tremendous performance from Cinci guard Deonta Vaughn. Vaughn was nearly unconscious for a short time in the 2nd half, scoring 20 straight Cinci points and keeping them in the game.

Louisville and Marquette were both revenge games for losses this season, and the Panthers played complete games in both of them, getting to the boards against Louisville while drawing Marquette into serious foul trouble, preventing both teams from really playing the games they wanted to play. Pitt’s best strategy this year has been a physical brand of basketball that is slightly adjusted each game to really limit the opponent’s strengths, as opposed to only playing to our own. This team is versatile enough to change defensive strategies yet still force turnovers, get blocks, and really still play Panther basketball. It continues to be a beautiful thing to watch.

The Georgetown game was the best of all, not only for the revenge from last year’s loss in the Big East final, but in terms of sheer basketball domination. Even though we only won by 8, we went to the free throw line an incredible 44 times (imagine if we’d hit 30 of them, that’s already a 16-point victory). We outrebounded the Hoyas by 14, had five players in double-digit points (Young, Ramon, Fields, Blair, and Brown), and got the Hoyas in serious foul trouble by bringing the ball down low and making them play physical basketball.

Sam Young got the tournament MVP, and he was easily the biggest player for Pitt this weekend, but really the whole team deserved a combined MVP. One of the best parts of the tournament was seeing Gil Brown really come into his own- a beautiful block against Louisville, great defense throughout the tournament, as well as a very solid tournament in terms of shooting the ball and limiting offensive mistakes. I can’t wait to see Gil in the NCAA tournament, as both he and DeJuan have avoided the jitters that often comes with playing on such a national stage. The Duke and Georgetown games were both nationally televised, but there is an intense amount of pressure to perform night in and night out in the Big East tournament, and neither player disappointed. Levance Fields was brilliant, as usual, with a turnover ratio well north of 5-to-1 and tenacious defense throughout. Ronny Ramon continues to nail key shots at will, it seems, going trey-for-trey with Deonta Vaughn in the Cinci game and making huge baskets at key times in the Louisville, Marquette, and Georgetown game. I can’t wait for Thursday night’s game against Oral Roberts, and a preview of the tournament will be forthcoming.

What a week…

I have been to the last four tournaments. I saw a one-and-done loss to Villanova. I saw two straight tourney final losses. I saw a blowout of #2 Villanova. I saw an annihilation from the hands of Georgetown.

Now I have seen a championship.

To see the sheer joy on the face of Ronald Ramon walking off the court will make me graduate with only the happiest of memories from my four years in the Zoo.

If ever there was a group of players that deserved a win in this tournament, it is our team. With the hardships endured this year, this victory can only taste that much sweeter. They didn’t get a bye. They didn’t get credit. They won with three straight upsets.

This is our house.

Enjoy this one, Panther fans. I know you guys like to criticize, but this is one to savor.

Panthers enter heart of conference season

After finally coming home with a victory from St. John’s, the Panthers face Big East bottom-dweller, Rutgers, who are playing off a surprising upset of Villanova.

This week will be a key week for Pitt, who is currently 4-2 in conference. Today really should be an easy win against the worst team in the conference. It will be our first home game in a while and the team seemed to click pretty well in New York. I don’t see why there should be any trouble today at all, if there is, we should worry.

Next game after today is Wednesday versus Villanova. This will be an important rematch of our first conference game of the season. As one of only three teams that Pitt will play twice, it would really hurt us to lose to Nova twice. The Wildcats are still going to be a good team in the conference and we can’t afford to drop two games to them in the standings. Having been at the first game, I can say that I think we have a very good chance at winning this game. I feel that Ronald and Keith have definitely solidified their games since then and Pitt should be able to feed off the home crowd.

Next weekend Pitt travels to UConn. Just announced is that Jim Calhoun, the UConn coach, has suspended two key players indefinitely for “breaking team rules.” Indefinitely is a hard word to judge, but I think it usually means more than one week, so we have that in our favor. UConn definitely isn’t the national champion of a few years ago since they have struggled mightily for the past two seasons. They did however take Georgetown down to the wire only to lose to a Hibbert 3-pointer, which is just about the worst way to possibly lose a game. This game would be a close one, maybe not as close as the Villanova matchup though, except now that they have two players out of the lineup. I think Pitt will be able to capitalize on that and bring home another important road-win.

There are just under three weeks remaining until Fields’ expected return at Marquette. This will be a pretty huge week for how the Panthers will end their season. Standing at 4-2 in a highly competitive Big East isn’t great position. If they manage to go 3-0 this week, rising to 7-2 without Levance, they will be in excellent condition heading into the Big East Tournament. As we have been able to see, there are going to be a lot of teams fighting for the byes on the first day, and starting 7-2 is a great way to get one.

Don’t forget to collect 4 loyalty points tomorrow for the women’s matchup against Louisville. Agnus and the women are playing a heck of a season. After losing to Duke on a last second shot on December 8, the Panthers have won 9 straight games. They are currently tied for their highest ranking ever at #19 and have already won at St. John’s this week. They have a few games coming up in the next few weeks including next weekend against #5 ranked Rutgers.

This Season’s Far From Over

Well, a truly incredible win tonight- I’m happy to say I was wrong about my prediction, these Panthers really came out and played a helluva game for, really, all 40 minutes. Not trailing even once against a top-5 team, and one that was supposed to contend for the national championship, speaks volumes about the resiliency of this Pitt basketball team.

The biggest part of tonight was the physical play of all the Panthers- they didn’t play dirty, but they really manned up against Georgetown and limited the backdoor cuts, forcing the Hoyas to take tougher shots and really forced them off-balance for much of the game. There was a short sequence in the 2nd half when the Hoyas looked like they might be back on their game, but the Panthers quickly adjusted and forced the tempo back to the way they wanted it.

Players of the game tonight were the guards for Pitt- Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin, who both put in 18 points in addition to playing great defense and really inspiring this team. Ronny, on his birthday, hit a key three early in the 2nd half before Keith followed that up with a trey of his own, putting the Panthers up by 8 early on and setting the tone for a dominant second half. Also very impressive were Keith’s layup and drawing the foul with about 8 minutes remaining, as well as his game-sealing jumper with just under a minute left.

Two weeks ago, most people were putting this game under the “we’re screwed” category- how could a Pitt team that lost two of it’s best players, part of it’s heart and soul, possibly compete with a top five team? Tonight, we’ve got our answer- by settling down to basics, playing your heart out in front of the best home court in the country (the Zoo tonight was 10 times louder than any point this year), and showing the rest of the conference that Pitt is still a huge force to be reckoned with.

Even Shorthanded, Panthers Never quit

Even
Shorthanded
Panthers
Never quit

Of all of the ESPN signs I have seen, this one was definitely the best.

In Bob Smizik’s article today in the wonderful Post-Gazette, he discussed why he is surprised that Pitt might not be dead yet. Although I am aware that sportswriters bleed pessimism, the following quote surprised me:
“If you didn’t know better, you would think it was business as usual for the Panthers, who play Georgetown at 7 p.m. today at Petersen Event Center.”

Of course nobody expected the Panthers to pack up their stuff and call the season a wash, but I don’t think even Bob would believe they aren’t going to try to win some big games.

Similarly, at about 12:30 today, while waiting in line, a friend and I were comparing the Zoo this season to the Zoo three years ago. Recalling games of the 2004-2005 season like the home defeat of Syracuse, where Pitt trailed early by 17 points. That was a team that was supposed to be great. That was not a team that had its local sportswriters questioning whether they were dead.

This game tonight, it was something else. The Panthers managed to upset one of the top teams in the country, a team that people had called a contender for the national title. The odds-on favorite to win the conference, today, goes home with a loss.

The crowd tonight was electric, probably the best game in the past two years. Compared to the GameDay event last year against Georgetown, I think this was far better. I think that anyone who has been in the Zoo for a while will tell you that this was what the Zoo can be, and to those of you new folks, this is what you have to look forward to. I sat behind Jay Bilas and heard him tell someone before the game that “this is one of the hardest 10 places to play in the country. The team has been really good, but these students are tough. They are loud and they are creative. It is a tough place to come and win.”

I posed a question a while ago: Is this the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?
And to the fan who answered, “Pitt will not make the NCAA tournament,” what do you have to say now?

New Year, New Team

So I know it’s been a while since there’s anything been posted here, and that’s really been mostly my fault. Since my last post, the Panthers lost by one at Villanova (64-63), then traveled to South Florida and defeated the Bulls 79-66 before opening up the Big East home season yesterday at the Pete by downing the Seton Hall Pirates 84-70. Tomorrow night is the big challenge of the Big East schedule- the Georgetown Hoyas come to Oakland, but I’ll touch on that later on.

When Levance went out with his foot injury, a lot of people feared that Sam Young would regress a bit in a slowed-down offense, but he has proven that this is really his breakout year, especially with 28-point, 8-rebound performance against the Pirates on Saturday afternoon. He displayed some great ability to make his own shot in a half-court set, pulling up on jumpers in the lane and passing the ball to the open man when necessary. It was great to see Sam have such a high scoring game without too many fast-break points, though I would like to see him concentrate a little more on his free throw shooting, especially late in the game.

Not too surprisingly, Dejuan Blair has really stepped up his game in conference play, averaging 14.7 ppg and 12.7 rpg while picking up 5 steals and 6 blocks in his last three games. He’s really been great for Pitt all year, but it’s even better to see him respond so well against conference opponents, and his maturity and energy on the court continues to be a huge positive sign for this Panthers team. It’ll be interesting to see how he matches up against Hoya All-American Roy Hibbert, a sure first-round pick in next years’ NBA draft, who he gives up 5 inches to. Blair is said to have the wingspan of a 7’2″ player, so now we can see how he’ll match up against the best big man in the conference.

Ronny Ramon and Keith Benjamin have both really stepped it up in the last few games as well, with Keith averaging 16.8 points in over 34 minutes per game while shooting 11-19 (57.9%) from beyond the arc and helping run the offense in the four games since Levance’s injury. Even after a cold start against Seton Hall, he really picked it up in the second half, and that kind of maturity is also going to be a huge asset in the conference. Ronny’s had a solid few games as well, compiling a 2.8-1 assist-to-turnover ratio while also shooting over 50% from 3.

The dark horse has really been Tyrell Biggs. Watching the game against Seton Hall, I feel like he’s about to become this team’s Mike Cook- our player who doesn’t fill out the stat sheet, but makes smart passes and hustles on both ends of the court. He hasn’t had the great games that Cook had, but I feel like he’s really hitting the potential that was seen coming out of high school in 2005. He’s stopped taking unnecessary 3s, and instead has focused more on crashing the boards and providing another big body down low.

The Panthers do have a lot to improve on, and I worry that tomorrow night’s game is going to expose quite a few of those- namely backdoor cuts, defending against screens, and guards that can drive to the hoop. Dejuan did a good job of staying out of foul trouble for most of the Seton Hall game, but against a quality opponent that’s not always going to happen. For those of you who don’t know, Georgetown runs a version of the Princeton offense, a slow-moving offense that emphasizes ball movement and waiting for the open man, as well as passing to backdoor cuts for open layups. Watch for the Panthers to double team up top and then be exposed down low for easy baskets. Pitt is definitely a team that can make adjustments at halftime, I just hope that we’re not down by too much at the 20-minute mark. However, as shown by the Villanova game, this is a team that can still compete with a top-20 team, even on the road, so I expect the Panthers to put up a good fight against the Hoyas on Monday night.