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.

Marred by Marquette once again

I have learned to respect Marquette a great deal in the past few years. No team has given us as many problems as Marquette. Even Georgetown, the likely repeat conference champion, is 1-2 against us in the regular season in that period.

I can’t say too many Pitt fans expected to win that game, but the ease with which Marquette won was almost staggering.

After watching the women get absolutely pummeled at WVU on Wednesday, this was a pretty lousy week of basketball.

The only positives I can see in this loss are that Sam Young had another good outing in spite of the lack of any support from the rest of the team, and that Levance is back and has nearly a week to further his recovery and get back to peak condition.

I would not claim that he came back too early. I think had the rest of the team been able to handle things adequately, Levance would have been more comfortable. It is going to be a challenge for him to try to take control of the offense while still injured when nobody seems to be able to shoot or even pass.

I think this week will be good time for the Panthers to rest and prepare for Notre Dame. They never faced the Irish last year, so Jamie should have more than his usual scouting to do. Notre Dame has been performing impressively all year, but I think they are a team that Pitt can beat. I think that Harangody and Blair will be an extremely entertaining matchup in the paint. I think the duo of Levance and Ronald on McAlarney will be pretty good too. I know that Fields still hasn’t had too many full practices under his belt, so hopefully everyone will get more adjusted in the coming few days.

Providence Comes to Town

So, a bit of possibly very exciting news today, but I’ll hold off until later to tell you what it is- nothing like suspense in a blog post. So, after that incredible ending to the WVU game, the Panthers find themselves at 6-4, just a game out of a bye the in Big East tournament, but heading into the toughest part of the Big East Conference schedule. We do get a bit of an easier game tomorrow night against the Providence Friars, but this is still not a team to be taken lightly. They have posted impressive wins at UConn (77-65) and home against then-number 18 Arkansas, 67-51. They are also 4-7 in the Big East, a mark that would knock them out of the tournament if the season ended now, so this is a team desperate for wins.

Luckily for us, the Friars are not at optimal health. Manhattan transfer and starting guard Jeff Xavier is playing through some pretty bad pain in his foot, which has him wearing a boot similar to Levance’s anytime he’s not on the court. Hopefully this will affect his dribble-drive ability and keep him out on the perimeter, where he’s only a 37.1% shooter. He’s had quite a few double-digit scoring effors in the last few months, but most of these come either against bad teams or on less-than-stellar shooting nights (6 for 17 against Seton Hall, for example). Another player capable of putting up points for the Friars is G-F Geoff McDermott, a junior out of New Rochelle HS in NY, who’s had 11 games in double digits this season. He also is injured, with fluid building up in a sore in an undisclosed location, perhaps contributing to his only scoring 10 or more in two of his past ten games. He does, however, average 8.3 rebounds and 5 assists a game, so it’ll be up to Sam and Tyrell to keep him off the boards and limit his passing.

One player who doesn’t look so impressive on the stat sheets but has improved over the course of the season is 6-11, 240 pound center Randall Hanke. He started his first game on December 9th, and while he only averages 8.4 points and 3.1 rebounds on the season, those numbers are very deceiving. Still not much of a rebounder, he has put up 18, 21, and 16 points in his last 3 games in addition to putting up 20 and 23 in earlier games. He’s also added 7 blocks in his last 4 games while shooting at a high percentage from inside. I would imagine that DeJuan shouldn’t have too much of a problem with Hanke, but he could get in there and alter some shots, similar to a shorter Hasheem Thabeet. However, because of the low rebound numbers, I’m not overly concerned about his effectiveness under the basket. In other restricted Friar notes, last year’s starting guard Sharaud Curry is out for the year with a stress fracture in his foot, and previous starter/key reserve 6’8″ forward Jonathan Kale has been suspended indefinitely by coach Tim Welsh, and his return has not been stated.

Alright, now to the slightly exciting news for today. I know I’m going to get some comments about this, and how it’s unlikely to happen- so before you say anything, I know that what’s upcoming is unlikely, but it’s possible.

Levance Fields has been cleared for full practice with the team, has been running on a treadmill, and participating in full 5-on-5 drills. Coach Dixon has said that Levance’s return is now completely dependent on pain tolerance and conditioning- and I would think that by Levance’s mad dash across the court at the end of the WVU game, pain tolerance is the least of Levance’s problems. I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but I would love to see Levance get put in for a very small amount of minutes against Providence- if nothing else, to get the crowd excited- but hopefully he’ll be able to play some solid minutes against Marquette, which would be incredibly important to Pitt’s chances in that game.

EDIT:
I stand corrected. -Keith McBride

Fields Eyes Up Marquette

As reported in the Post-Gazette, Fields has told reporters today that he hopes to be back in playing shape by Valentine’s Day, which means he wants to play at Marquette on February 15.

I have known for a while now that his injury status and expected date of return were a bit overestimated, and was told that Fields is so eager to return that he claimed he wanted to play versus Georgetown. Obviously his doctors laughed at him and said no.

What this means is that the much publicized misfortune of Pitt’s 2008 tournament hopes were grossly exaggerated. I am obviously a harsh critic of sports reporters and this is no exception. Jamie Dixon has notably changed the way he is preparing the players in response to the injuries, and the players are obviously buying into it and excelling.

For Pitt to be playing as well as they are right now, with the expectation of Fields to make a return in just about a month, every Pitt fan should smile. As long as the Panthers can grind out the next seven games, they should be in excellent shape to enter the Big East Tournament.

Pitt has two road games that they should be able to handle. Cincinnati is a big question mark in my mind. I watched them on TV against St. John’s and they both looked awful, yet somehow Cincinnati has put together an impressive conference record so far. I would expect them to play with some real heart at home this weekend. Pitt has a habit of following up a big win with less than expected intensity (Duke and Dayton, for example). I’ll be traveling back to Ohio to see it, and I don’t foresee anything resembling Dayton, hopefully I am correct.

St. John’s on the road is always a game that challenges Pitt. I had long been of the opinion that our players suffered when playing in front of a close-to-home audience. Now that Pitt has a lot fewer New York natives, that variable should not matter as much. The only win St. John’s has in the conference is Cincinnati. I have a feeling that, barring a slip-up this weekend, Ronald and Keith will have settled into their roles as much as they ever will, and this game should be far less trying than in the past.

I am predicting that this weekend we see Sam Young bounce back from his only game without 10+ points so far this year. I also believe that Jamie will try to get Gary McGhee into some action as well. I was very excited that he got some minutes against Georgetown, but with such foul calls, obviously his time would be cut short.

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.

Marquette Recap

I usually give a statistical perspective of the games but last night doesn’t need any stats to back up the game. We played our best offensive game of the year and did enough on the other end to shut down James. Fitzgerald killed us but it wasn’t enough to get Marquette over the hump. Gray and Fields played great last night but so did the entire team.

Hearing “LETS GO PITT” resonating through Madison Square Garden was an experience that I will never forget. The 50 or so students made a ridiculous amount of noise the entire game. Every chant extended through the entire shot clock on both ends. The Zoo really showed up even in a smaller form.

Tonight is Louisville and if they played like they did against WVU we can beat them. I watched the entire Louisville-WVU game and save the first 10 minutes Louisville didn’t look all that impressive. If we can play good basketball early we can jump out to a lead and put this game away.

New York is great and I’m having the time of my life.