Gettin’ Dirty on Syracuse

It’s here. Big Monday.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

I think I speak for a few Pitt fans when I say I’ve been looking forward to this game since the final buzzer of the Connecticut game. The Syracuse Orange have been perfect so far, rolling to 18-0 on the season. That’s the best start in Syracuse basketball history. Syracuse has been the team Pitt has been compared to all season. When asked, “Who is the best team in the Big East?”, most experts would say it’s a toss up between the two. Some would pick Pitt, a few more might pick the Orange. After Monday, that won’t be the case. Pitt will show the country that it’s a true Final Four contender this year. The Pete is our house. 144-11. 8-0 against top 5 teams. “Where top-5 teams come to die”. No current Syracuse player has beaten Pitt, let alone beat Pitt at the Zoo.
Pitt has been playing some of its best basketball of late. Bob Knight called the first half of Pitt’s game against Georgetown “the best half of basketball I’ve seen by any team all year”. Even when its offense has not be gelling as it wasn’t against Seton Hall, Pitt still manages to scrap for rebounds and second chance opportunities to still win by 21.

The last time Cuse came to the Pete, an 18 pt loss for the Orange

For stat analysis, Pitt is top 20 in points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, and field goal percentage. They’re top 5 in rebounding and assists, being the top team for the latter. This might be one of the most balanced teams Pitt has ever had. Against Seton Hall, only two players scored in double figures, but 9 total players scored at least 5 and 8 had at least 4 rebounds. Syracuse is top 20 in assists per game and field goal percentage. The Orange are led by 6’7 junior forward Kris Joseph at 14.6 pts/game. Unfortunately, Joseph slammed his head falling back onto the floor against Cincinatti on Satuday and will not play against Pitt on Monday. While I would like to beat the Orange at “full strength”, injuries and staying healthy are part of the game.  You know what is also part of the game? Being physical and playing aggressive. Welcome back to the Zoo, Scoop. (p.s. how can anyone from the team that had Eric Devendorf on it call another team dirty?)

While Jardine is Orange’s 2nd leading scorer, I think Rick Jackson will be a bigger key to the game. He averages a double-double per game with 13.2 pts/game and 11.7 rebs/game. What really stands out to me is he plays almost 34 minutes a game. For how big a guy he is, that’s impressive. Pitt’s McGhee averages about 20, splitting most of his time with Dante Taylor. Put McGhee and Taylor together though? 35.7 minutes per game, 14 pts/game, and 12 .6 rebounds/game. Together they put together a solid performance at the center position. Taylor will have to step it up on the defensive end to handle Jackson though.

This may be the first team Pitt has faced this year that has as much depth as the Panthers. They have a talented group of players, followed by a good but young group off the bench. ‘Cuse fans will point to the “development” of freshman Fab Melo during the Cincinnati game as another positive sign for depth. I’ve never seen a kid get such pre-season hype, and simply not deliver as much as this kid has. Another aspect of this game that is synonomous with Syracuse is the 2-3 zone. It brings about sheer offensive ineptitude for just about every opposing team the Orange face, except Pitt. Perhaps it’s Pitt’s patience when running its offense, or how they distribute the ball around the court getting the ball to the right spots, but Pitt has not been fazed by the zone under Jamie Dixon. They just get it. The Orange are the Big East’s best defensive team in terms of opposing field goal percentage. They force their opponents to take bad and/or contested shots. Their best advantage, however, may fall flat against the Panther’s patient offensives schemes.

Syracuse hasn’t lost yet this year. This is an advantage to Pitt the way I see it. Pitt was dealt its first loss by a hot Tennessee team, and does not have that burden of remaining perfect. For Syracuse, they haven’t been down and been challenged this year. Coming to the Pete with the Oakland Zoo is a terrible place for Syracuse to figure out if they can survive a game like that.

For this game, the Zoo should be at its absolute best. The building will be packed. This game is prime time for the country to see how Pitt basketball is played, and to see the Zoo. The Panthers will be wearing the white versions of their Nike Hyper Elite uniforms. Every possession matters in this game, and the Zoo should treat it as such. As I said, the Pete is our house, and we should not let them walk away being the first Top 5 team to beat us at home. Be loud, be obnoxious, be animals, even if you’re not in the Zoo. The fans in the rest of the stadium are just as important to this team. Nobody’s perfect, and Syracuse should be reminded of that on Monday…just like last year

The last time Pitt and Syracuse played. (credit:Mike Tam)

Hail to Pitt.

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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.

The Statement Game

A Tha-beat down

Merry Christmas!

Some pregame insight for when the #4 UConn Huskies come to play our #6 Pitt Panthers on Monday Night.

One of the biggest factors for this game (and for any of Pitt’s games, in fact) is that this game is being played at the Pete. The Panthers have won 47 out of their last 48 games at the Pete, with the loss in that stretch coming last year to Georgetown. More importantly, UConn hasn’t won a game at the Pete since Feb 26th 2005. That was the year of the worst (being a relative term) team record-wise under Jamie Dixon. The Oakland Zoo should be bumping for this game. It goes without saying that you will sorely be missing out if you miss this game.  It also turns out, that this game is a gold-out, and fans will receive a free, gold “This is Our House” t-shirt. You now have no excuse not to come if there is a free t-shirt involved. Maybe the Crying Calhoun towels will also be making a comeback?

Crying Calhoun Towel

To the expectations of the game:

Pitt’s biggest concern is also the most obvious: Kemba Walker. The 6’1 junior guard is the primary reason the Huskies have surprised everyone this year on their way to a top-5 ranking. He averages 26.5 pts per game (2nd in the country) with a decent 42.1% from beyond the arc. He’s quick, smart, and doesn’t turn the ball over a whole lot. If Pitt can limit his production, it will go a long way towards a victory, considering he scores about a 1/3 of the Huskies’ points each game

The second concern is that this may be the first team that’s as good at rebounding the ball as the Panthers are. Pitt is #2 in the country at crashing the boards, while UConn is #4 with Alex Oriakhi leading the Huskies at 9.9 rebounds per game. The Panthers have 5 different players that pull in at least 5 rebounds per game being a little more balanced, while Oriakhi pulls the majority for the Huskies, with 3 others over 5 rpg. The Panthers are best in the country in terms of assists, however, with Brad Wannamaker leading the team at 5.6 per game. The Panthers have to keep distributing the ball well, and being patient on offense. As always, grind the other team down. Pitt has such great depth, and should be able to hopefully wear the Huskies down as the game progresses as they’re are a fairly young team. Walker will kill the Panthers if they allow him to take the tempo too high. Pitt does also have a terrible problem of not stomping out teams early, though. They never seem to go for the neck to end an opponent’s chances. This seems to be linked to Pitt being able to finish around the rim. Layups, layups, layups. Guys like Nasir, Talib, and Dante do a good job of getting to the rim, but have to be able to finish.  I’m also hoping the Panthers take some extra free-throws this weekend, because they are a woeful 65% from the line (I’m looking at you Gary, Mr 42.5 %. Gibbs makes a higher percentage of 3’s (44%) then McGhee does free throws)

Finally, this will be a huge statement game for the Panthers. I still think the Panthers are a top-10 team, even after the loss to Tennessee. I feel a lot better about that close game with Texas in MSG after they just romped Michigan State Wednesday night.  Overall, this team is more balanced than the Huskies are, and if they play the way they did against teams like Texas, they can win this fairly comfortably. If they come out slow with no fight, however, this could very easily be another Tennessee game. This will be the beginning of a brutal (but favorable) schedule for the Panthers in the Big East. Pitt, UConn, Syracuse, Nova, and Georgetown are all in the top-10. with Notre Dame and Louisville bringing up the rear of the top-25. If Pitt wins this game, they are legit a top-5 team and can set themselves up for a nice run in March.

One step at a time. Hail to Pitt

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@Oaklandzoo @sta7ic

Gettin Ready for the Zips

For today’s preview of Friday’s game, the Zoo blog will be moving in a different direction. Akron student Mike Reynolds and Akron alum/Akron Beacon Journal writer Michael Beaven were extremely helpful in answering some questions I had for them about the Akron program and what Pitt should expect to see on Friday night. I’d like to say a huge thanks to these guys for helping me out, and as you’ll see their answers were great and thorough, and if you see either of them at the game on Friday (I know Mike said he’ll be there), please don’t boo them TOO loudly.

Oakland Zoo: Who are the star players on the Akron Zips?

Mike Reynolds: Naming our “star players” is kind of tough. We graduated our top 3 scorers and have 9 freshman on the team and only 2 seniors. If I had to pick two or three “stars” though I would choose Nate Linhart as our biggest returning player. He is a terrific defender and a guy who can hurt you from outside or on the boards. 

Michael Beaven: Nate Linhart is a quality defender and a pretty good player on offense. Chris McKnight is their best presence in the post on offense and defense and he also has a pretty good jumper. Brett McKnight is probably their best pure scorer on offense, but his defense needs improvement. Daryll Roberts is a quality guard that can create offense off the dribble and he is also a pesky defender. Roberts also has a pretty good jumper.

OZ: What is Akron’s biggest strength as a team?

MR: Our biggest strength would probably be our defense. Though we aren’t necessarily tall but we are able to handle the inside fairly well. Also, we are big on running the floor and will usually score a lot of points off turnovers on the break. 

MB:The Zips biggest strength appears to be that they have a lot of “depth” at guard and forward. The problem is this “depth” is unproven at the collegiate level. Several of the guys were really good players on successful high school teams and appear to have a lot of potential.

OZ: What’s the scoop on Akron’s coach, Keith Dambrot?
MB: This is his fifth season as UA’s head coach and he was an assistant coach the previous three seasons. He graduated from UA and Akron Firestone High School. He was also the head coach at Tiffin, Ashland and Central Michigan for two years at each college. He coached at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School for three seasons where he won two state titles. He coached LeBron James during his freshman and sophomore seasons at St. V-M.

MR: He has a 92-38 record coming into his 5th season as our coach. He is 53-5 at home in his career at Akron. He is very defensive minded. Also, he is a hometown guy–he attended Firestone High School in Akron and graduated from The University of Akron in ’82 (he played baseball at UA).

OZ: Give me a great reason why Akron could win this game.
MR: The Zips can defend with most anyone in the country and this is straight from the defense first philosophy of Coach Dambrot. They can really create turnovers. Also, The Zips under Dambrot always seem to play tough against tough teams. They can usually hang with anyone.

MB: UA can win this game if they get really hot from behind the 3-point line. They have some capable shooters (McNees, Roberts, Linhart, B. McKnight), but they haven’t shot the 3-ball very well as of yet. Steward and Hitchens have been streaky from long distance so far.

OZ: Give me a reason why Akron will lose this game.
MR: Akron is in a rebuilding year and the young team will struggle in a big-time atmosphere like Petersen Events Center. The Panthers will have 2 games under their belt and be rolling into their 3rd straight home game with lots of momentum.

MB: Lack of experience. UA has had five players (Romeo Travis, Dru Joyce III, Jeremiah Wood, Cedrick Middleton and Nick Dials) graduate from the program after each scored over 1,000 career points.

As you can see, this guys were extremely helpful, and I’d like to once again thank Mike and Michael (no, I didn’t do that on purpose) for helping us out here at the Oakland Zoo.

Merlin’s Musings- Miami (OH) Edition

Another Monday night, another game at the beautiful Peterson Events Center here on Pitt’s campus. This game, however, should play out very differently than the beatdown of Fairleigh Dickinson, with the Miami (OH) RedHawks coming off a near-upset of #4 UCLA, losing 64-59 after they had a chance at a game-tying three in the closing seconds of the game. With that result in mind, here’s my Musings for tonight’s game: 

1) Three Point Shooting: The RedHawks enter tonight’s game having shot 10-for-20 from beyond against Wright State and 7-for-15 against UCLA, so this is clearly a team that loves to shoot the long ball, and with great success. Fairleigh Dickinson did shoot well from beyond the arc as well (9-for-19), but this is a facet of the RedHawks offense that can not be overlooked. The Panthers will need a few threes of their own to stop the RedHawks from gathering any momentum, so look for Ashton Gibbs and Jermaine Dixon to try and bury the long ball.

2) Experience: While the FD Knights didn’t have too much of it, the RedHawks start three seniors, a redshirt junior, and a sophomore, so everybody on this team has plenty of basketball experience. This is clearly not a team that will fold just because they’re playing a tough team, and expect wing Michael Bramos and guard Kenny Hayes to take shots and try to control the tempo. The RedHawks have a strong supporting cast, getting points from up and down their roster, so the Panthers need to be strong even when the 2nd units are getting their playing time.

3) Rebounding: A strength lately for the Panthers, this is a huge weakspot for the RedHawks, who were outrebounded in both of their first two games. If the Panthers want to control this game and the tempo, they are going to need to beat the RedHawks on their offensive glass and run the fast-break, forcing the RedHawks to get out of the slow tempo they prefer and run a full-court system. If this game turns into a track meet, it gives the Panthers a huge advantage, but they will need to play great defense and get rebounds early to force that tempo.

4) DeJuan Blair: While this definitely links to point #3, DeJuan is going to have to have another incredible game. He will be primarily matched up against 6’8″, 220 pound senior Tyler Dierkers, a senior who averaged 6.1 ppg and 6.4 rpg last year. Blair should easily grab 13-15 rebounds and his inside scoring will force Miami into foul trouble, as well as draw defenders inside for better three-point looks. If the Panthers win the rebound game by a large margin, as they are apt to do, this game will not be as close as UCLA’s.

Bring on the Knights

In the first game that actually matters for the Panthers, the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights come to the Pete at 7pm. Not really too much to say about this game, other than that Pitt is 63-0 all-time against teams from the NorthEast Conference, and we can’t expect too much from a team that went 8-20 and loses three of it’s top 4 scorers. They do return Sean Baptiste (18.5 ppg), a 6’3″ guard who will most likely be handled by one of Pitt’s strongest on-ball defenders, Jermaine Dixon, so hopefully their top threat should be no threat to a strong Panther squad. The Knights also reobtain the services of point guard Cameron Tyler (14.3 ppg, 5.1 apg in 2006-07) after he sat out last year for academic issues.

On Pitt’s side, the starting lineup should be Ashton Gibbs, Jermaine Dixon, Sam Young, Tyrell Biggs, and DeJuan Blair. Expect to see a good amount of Brad Wanamaker and Travon Woodall in the backcourt with Nasir Robinson and Gary McGhee playing solid minutes up front. Because Gil Brown is injured, the Panthers have no true backup at small forward, and should go with a 3-guard lineup whenever Sam Young is out. Jamie Dixon put out quite a few different looks in the exhibition games and I would hope to see that wide variety of lineups continue based on Fairleigh-Dickinson’s lineup. Levance Field is still injured for this game, and Dwight Miller will in all likelihood take a redshirt this season. His depth in the front court will be necessary only if injuries occur, and he’s a player who could use the extra year of work at the college level before getting some serious minutes, especially after Biggs graduates.

Preseason Polls and Preseason Games

The preseason AP and ESPN/USA Today Polls have both been released for the 2008-2009 season, and Pitt’s ranked well in both of them, coming in at 5th and 6th places, respectively. This places them right up amongst the best teams in the nation, and Pitt should contend for a top-5 spot nationally all season, though it will be tough for anybody to dethrone Roy Williams and his unanimous #1 UNC Tar Heels. The Big East tied a record with 7 teams ranked in the top 25: alongside Pitt, there is UConn (#2 AP, #2 Coaches), Louisville (3/3), Notre Dame (9/9), Marquette (16/17), Georgetown (22/18), and Villanova (23/25). Also recieving votes in both polls were WVU and Syracuse, making for 9 teams that could be in the poll by the end of the non-conference portion of the schedule. Siena, who Pitt will play in December, received quite a few votes in both polls, as well as Washington State, who Pitt could play in the final of the Legends Classic.

Polls aside, the Panthers play their first preseason game this Sunday against Seton Hill at 4pm, and seeing the scrimmage has given me a few things to look for at the exhibition. This leads me to a new feature of the Zoo blog, which I will call “Merlin’s Musings” until someone presents me with a better title. This will be usually five things that I am looking for from the Panthers in every game, that every fan will be able to watch for along with me and hopefully we can discuss the Musings post-game and see how the Panthers did.

1) Travon Woodall and Ashton Gibbs seeing time at the point guard position. Both freshman did a good job leading their teams in the scrimmage, and I’m curious to see how much time Jamie gives the pair at the 1-guard, though I would imagine Travon will get the majority of the minutes and the start against Fairleigh-Dickinson.

2) Jermaine Dixon’s ability to create his own shot. One of the leading scorers at the scrimmage, watch for Dixon’s shooting ability from long distance as well as his strength and ability to take it to the hoop. At the scrimmage, he had a few ill-advised takes, and we’ll see if he starts to smooth out his game against an opponent that isn’t his teammates.

3) Gary McGhee’s improved overall game. A lot of people at the scrimmage were very impressed with Gary’s progress since his freshman year. He’s lost the “deer-in-headlights” look from his freshman year and is a lot more sure of himself on the court. Obviously a great rebounder, Gary still needs some work around the basket, but his overall game is definitely improved.

4) Sam Young playing small forward and Gil Brown at shooting guard. The major position changes for the Panthers will be the shifiting of Young and Brown to the 3 and 2 spots, and watching them adjust will be a huge part of the Panthers’ success this year. If both of them continue to work on their shot, and Gil’s ankle isn’t too much of a problem, this should be a successful experiment.

5) DeJuan Blair’s improved range around the hoop. At the scrimmage, Blair showed great touch from 8-10 feet away from the basket, making a few short jumpers with ease that he might not have even attempted last year. If he can continue to expand his game away from the basket, he’ll become even more of a force then he was last year, which was confined to being around the hoop.

Also, after the game, there will be an Oakland Zoo event for the students in the Zoo to get a chance to meet the players and Jamie Dixon as well as get autographs and photos. Stay after the game for a great time, and hope to see a lot of people at the Pete on Sunday to welcome our new members of the Panthers to playing in front of the best crowd in the Big East.