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.

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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.

After Louisville, a Look Ahead

Well, this was a bit of a more promising loss (if there is such a thing) than the Notre Dame debacle. We never really had a point in the game where we fell asleep completely, we just were never able to hit that key basket to tie the game or take the lead- the Cardinals did just enough to keep us at finger’s length the entire game. Obviously, defense and three-pointing are the main concerns at this point. We’re 0-6 when we shoot under 33.3% from the arc, which really shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anybody who’s been paying attention to Pitt basketball lately.

Pitt is, for right now, on the NCAA bubble, but I’m fairly confident, based on how we played yesterday, that we should be able to get in. Going 3-1 over the last four games, along with a win in the first round of the Big East tournament, should solidify that, but I’ll take two wins in the tournament just to make it a sure thing. We might not make the Sweet 16 this year (it really depends on matchups), but I really wanted to write about how everybody shouldn’t panic about this Pitt basketball program. A few people complained about my last post, saying I was overreacting and that the program isn’t completely screwed, and that wasn’t the point I was trying to make. I was saying we were playing poor basketball for the moment, but I really think our outlook is very positive at the moment.

Jamie knows the kind of basketball he wants to play, and he’s now getting the kind of recruits he needs to play it. The next class (and already the 2009 class) have some solid shooters and great defensive players who are going to love Dixon’s style of play, and along with the growing maturity and skill of our current freshmen, our next few years should be increasingly good to watch. Nasir Robinson’s Chester team just won the PIAA District 1 AAAA title, and I very much enjoyed the following:

“Pittsburgh-bound Robinson added 18 points and 12 rebounds and Johnson collected 12 points and five rebounds. What won’t show [in the boxscore] is the stellar defense Johnson, Jefferson, Robinson, Burrell and Mark Collins played.”

This whole season, scouts have raved about Robinson’s tenacity and defensive intensity, so I can imagine this will only pick up under Dixon, and Nasir should be a fantastic player for Pitt- if not his freshman year, definitely by his sophomore. Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall are both very solid guard recruits for next year, as is JUCO transfer Jermaine Dixon. By my junior year, this Pitt team will have an abundance of talent, defensive know-how and intensity, as well as what should be a very dominant inside-outside game. DeJuan Blair, Gary McGhee, as well as Nasir Robinson and Lamar Patterson should be really hustling for offensive boards, and Patterson, Robinson, Gibbs, Woodall, Wanamaker, and Brown will all be able to shoot from anywhere on the court. I don’t want to say to forget about this year, but thinking ahead to the future is something that shouldn’t worry any Pitt fan. This is a team that is going to flourish in the next few years, and I’m excited to see who else Jamie Dixon can bring to Pittsburgh.

A Moral Victory for the Zoo

Yesterday’s game was heart-wrenching.  The guys played well for the most part and it seemed like we were going to squeak out a victory, but that didn’t happen.  It was an emotionally tough loss.  My sadness even prevented me from writing my English paper. (Would that excuse work to get an extension?)

Anyway, despite a tally in the loss column, there are a bunch of things that we as fans can be proud of.  First of all, the majority of the Zoo stayed, which is always great.  I know that we did not sell out, but the fans that did come were loud and dedicated.  Also, for the first time since I’ve been at Pitt (which is not that long) the zoo did not speed up the P-I-T-T cheer, so kudos on that.  Finally, I want to applaud the Zoo for helping to get the rest of the Pete on its feet.  At certain points during the game, the place was rocking, the entire arena was joining in on cheers.  I don’t remember specific instances because I was too busy losing my voice (not bragging, just pointing it out), but I feel like the Pete regained its status as one of the toughest places to play yesterday.
Although we did improve a great deal, I don’t want to go too far up the Zoo’s proverbial backside.  I’m disappointed in the turn out.  A noon game on a Sunday should always be sold out.  I understand people are hungover and many have work to do, but it’s not hard to set aside two hours on a Sunday morning.  I got back to my room around 2 PM, which left a ton of time for me to recover from a hangover and to get some serious work out of the way. (I didn’t have a hangover, partly because I didn’t go out and partly because the liquids in my refrigerator were too darn cold to drink – I know I’m really lame and I don’t mind it.)  Another thing I was upset about was that at various points the Zoo was silent.  For whatever reason, we just stopped cheering.  I did this as well, I get tired.  This is something we need to work on.  So, for the Cincy game, walk up the hill instead of riding the shuttle, get the grilled chicken instead of the fried variety, do some vocal exercises, and take an extra puff out of your inhaler (albuterol is my personal choice).
On the recruiting front, it seemed like the number of  football recruits at the game could field their own team.  I thought the Zoo did a great job serving as a welcoming committee.  I spent the majority of my voice offering recruits and their parents a place to party if they decided to choose Pitt over their other schools.  Incidentally, kudos to my boy Griffin for spotting Jeff Hafley, our new secondary coach.  Griffin, you spend way too much time reading about our team.  If your grades start to slip, that could be a reason.
P.S. Thanks for playing more defense Sam Young – but we both know you can do more.
P.P.S Don’t cut the line for the Zoo.  It’s lame and annoying and people get mad.  We don’t need anything to spark divisions within the Zoo, but if you’re going to be a jerk, I’m going to call you out.  This is such a third-grade issue, but it’s really annoying.  If you do this, just stop.
Notice of Lost Items:  Ronald Ramon’s shot at any point in the game besides the last minute.  Ronald, I’ll gladly start a search party to help you out.  When you do find it, Ron, we’re doing Jaeger bombs.
Hail to Pitt and start prepping for the Cincy game.

Unbelievable

I’m going to preface this by saying I hate losses. I hate suffering them, I hate that inevitable feeling of watching them, and most of all I hate writing about them. Someone commented on an earlier post that we “procrastinate” writing our articles about losses, and there’s a reason for that. After you watch the team that you love implode in the last few minutes of a game, the last thing you want to do is then think about it more. However, tonight, I’m going to do just that, and get some real frustrations out. This is going to be a bit of an angry post tonight, so don’t get overly offended.

First of all, I’m absolutely disgusted with the play of Sam Young. He is a good ballplayer, but he seems to think he’s some sort of NBA superstar already. Pittsburgh Panthers basketball is all about players who are willing to be a part of a team, not someone who wants to showboat for their own good. When you have a clear path to the hoop with 5 minutes left, down three points, that ball HAS TO GO IN THE HOOP. To watch Sam try and showboat was nauseating, and he should honestly be benched for a game to teach him a lesson. All he had to do was go up with two hands and drop the ball through the basket. Instead, he decided to show everybody just how “awesome” he was with a giant one-handed slam and instead gave Notre Dame all the momentum. Bricking a three-pointer he shouldn’t be taking two minutes later doesn’t help, either. Against a team with a 34-game home winning streak, the last thing to do is give them any more momentum.

Secondly, I’ve never seen a team lose their confidence and energy so quickly down the stretch. Whatever happened to the team of Duke and Washington has left completely. We’re still talented but we miss Mike Cook more than anybody could ever realize. Keith and Ronny aren’t the kind of players to keep a team’s confidence up, Cookie was the kind of guy who could stop a collapse and keep the Panthers in it. Instead, as soon as Notre Dame gets momentum with a few minutes left, we fold like a cheap lawn chair. Yes, McAlarney hit some tough threes down the stretch, but he only had 3 on the game, a number that Pitt should easily have overcome. Instead, he drops one tough trey in our faces and we completely forget our game plan. It’s like Jamie Dixon has to call a timeout every five minutes and go “Hey! Remember our game plan? Let’s play some defense!” and we do it for about 5 minutes, and start lapsing again. It’s really sad to watch, and every Pitt fan sees it coming. There used to be a point where we’d say that we hit a rough patch and could hit some shots down the stretch, but it’s now hitting a point where we go down by a few points with 2 minutes left and the fans just KNOW that it’s over. Something about the Panthers just shows that they’ve given up. It’s really just awful.

The scary thing is, how do you fix that? How do you get a team’s energy up when the other team hits a few shots? I used to have a tennis coach, up at a summer camp I went to, who would give great lectures- not just about tennis, but about sports and life in general. My personal favorite was a lecture called “Hills and Valleys.” The basic point was that in every game you’re going to have hills, and you’re going to have- you guessed it- valleys. The best players, and teams, are the ones that understand their hills and valleys, and don’t let either one get into their head. The Panthers become overconfident in their hills, and completely lose it when they go into their valleys. The best teams in the country are the ones that understand when their shots aren’t falling and go back to basics- great defense, simple offense, and ride the valley back up into a wave. The Panthers have a terrible mental game about their hills and valleys, and they desperately need someone to carry them through. I just can’t see anybody on this team stepping up and doing it. I really worry about this team for the rest of the season. See you all at the Louisville game, which really should determine our fate for the rest of the season. There’s rarely must-win games in college basketball, but the Sunday matchup is certainly one for our Pittsburgh Panthers.

Thoughts On The Last Two Days

Sorry everyone for the lateness of this article operating off of about 20 hours of sleep for an entire week isn’t condusive to writing articles. Overall, New York was an amazing time and I got to see some great basketball at the Garden. Two of the best games I’ve seen Pitt play live on Thursday and Friday, then on Saturday night the worst game I’ve ever seen us play live. Everyone who watched the Georgetown game knows why we lost so me saying it is just piling on. Sitting in the Garden watching us get trashed isn’t a feeling I want to feel again. Give the Hoyas credit though they are by far the best team in the Big East and a legitimate national title contender.

The #3 seed in the West bracket is not good at all. We are staring down a match-up in San Jose with UCLA. I’ve wanted to play UCLA since the day Ben Howland lied to us and said he wasn’t going anywhere but not in California. A neutral court in a tournament that is supposed to be played on neutral courts would have been nice but what can you do. At least we aren’t a #9 seed playing Michigan State like Marquette or a #6 seed who gets to play a great Winthrop team like Notre Dame. The Big East was not given favorable rankings except for Georgetown who could walk right into the Sweet Sixteen with little effort.

As for our opponent in the first round Wright St., they don’t really have an unique look or anything that can put pressure on us. Gray is going to get to tower over their inside guys, so look for him to bounce back a little in the warm-up game. Second round everybody is looking forward to the Duke-Pitt matchup but I think Duke-VCU might be a little closer than everyone expects. VCU was by far the best team in CAA (where last year’s shocker George Mason plays) and they have a good backcourt. If the Dukies don’t play well we can look at VCU in the second round.

I’m not making any predictions as of yet as to how we will play in the tournament because I don’t know which team to expect. The team that played Marquette and Louisville is going to be dangerous but the team that played Georgetown is one and done. My advice just enjoy the ride don’t worry about if we are finally going to get past the Sweet Sixteen. March Madness is one of the best sporting events in the world and every game has something interesting about it.

Antonio Graves Is My Hero. Not Really But He Played Great Last Night.

What a game and what a night. The first minute and a half of the second half was the best experience of my life. Down double digits at the half and we completely blew the lead away. Great performances by every starter with Gray on the bench.

40 minutes from the tournament title.