Pirates In the Zoo

Another day in the Big East

Our #5 Panthers have their final primer against Seton Hall University before they take on the Syracuse Orange on Big Monday. Pitt is playing its best basketball right now. Though I expected a much bigger fight out of Georgetown than what we saw, I repeat my worry that Pitt will have a slump game soon after playing so well (that might be my damaged psyche from football season though) . Right now, Seton Hall is the next game on the schedule, not Syracuse. I’m confident that Jamie Dixon will have their heads in the right place though.

The Seton Hall game, unfortunately, is scheduled at the same time as during the Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens play-off game. Hopefully Pitt fans will have some time to either go to the game, or at least switch over to watch it every once in a while on TV. There will reportedly also be football recruits at this game. I would not be surprised if new football Head Coach Todd Graham made an appearance as well. Pitt basketball games have often been a good place to grab some recruits attention, and show them Pitt fans are passionate about their teams. Do what you can to make them feel welcome.

Seton Hall, with 1st year coach Kevin Willard (a ’97 Pitt basketball Alumnus), has been having a disappointing season to say the least. They’re sitting at 8-9, 2-3 in the Big East with wins over DePaul and USF who are both winless in the Big East. They played Syracuse very close at home, losing only by 5. However, the Pirates have been without arguably (actually, there’s no argument) their best player in Jeremy Hazell who is 25 by the way (?!?!). He injured his wrist 3 games into the season, and has been sidelined. The big story, though, was Hazell was held at gunpoint over Christmas and shot in right armpit. He played last night, however, against DePaul and scored 23 points. CBS’s Eric Angevine had something to say:

Just to recap, Hazell came back from his wrist injury in the absolute minimum time his doctor would allow. He was also shot — SHOT — by a gunman just eighteen days ago, and he came back playing out-of-his-mind, not tentative or ginger on the ol’ wings at all. As the Associated Press reported, “Hazell, a first-team preseason All-Big East selection, had an alley-oop dunk to make it 77-60 with 2:17 left. He scored 15 points in the second half. Hazell said he never doubted that he would return to the court even after being shot.”

I think I’d be a DNP – quivering pile of goo for the rest of the season if I had been shot by a robber, but it wasn’t nothin’ but a thang to Hazell. That’s pretty tough, both mentally and physically.

Hazell has been a factor for all of the past SHU-Pitt games. SHU surprised Pitt last year and took a win from them when Pitt was in NJ. The other factor is the rebounding machine that is Herb Pope (20 rebounds against Syracuse). Pope also had some health problems. He collapsed during a workout last April, and had to have surgery to correct a birth defect in his heart. That story kind of took the spot of another from during the season on Herb Pope. Check it out:

Considering Pitt had offered a scholarship to Herb Pope, I’m kind of glad he didn’t take it.
For game analysis, its kind of hard to say what kind of team this is. The one without Jeremy Hazell has not done great. They don’t rank very well in any category. With having enough rest from Georgetown, and this game being at the Pete, I don’t foresee Pitt having a terrible time in this game. This could definitely be a trap game if Pitt is looking to far ahead to Syracuse, but Pitt doesn’t seem to have a history of doing that in the past. They always play up/down to their opponent but should have this comfortably. I’ll be at the game in the Zoo as always, so I’ll be tweeting from there with pictures/comments.

Hail to Pitt, and Go Steelers and Pens!

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Oakland Zoo Turns 10: A (Vegas) Golden Decade

As Pitt prepares to host Seton Hall this weekend, let’s attempt to roll back the clock exactly one decade.  The Pittsburgh Panthers are hosting the hot 15th ranked Seton Hall Pirates at the Fitzgerald Fieldhouse on January 13, 2001.  A few students are excited by new coach Ben Howland.  They decide what the upstart Panthers really need is some student support.  They form the Oakland Zoo.

Pittsburgh Shocks No. 15 Seton Hall, 77-65

Freshman Julius Page steps up for men’s basketball, Panthers move to 10-5.

PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh hadn’t beaten a ranked opponent under second-year coach Ben Howland. Now that they’ve done it once, they’ll get a lot more opportunities to do it again.

Not only was it the first big win for the Howland-Dixon coaching squad, it was the humble beginning of one of the country’s greatest student sections.  In just ten years, the Oakland Zoo has grown from a handful of kids to thousands of fans. The introduction of the Zoo shirt has made Pitt’s unusual “Vegas Gold” hue a recognizable symbol of the University.

The ascension of the basketball team has come hand-in-hand with the rise of the Zoo.  The fans have always supported the team, and the team has always given the fans a reason to cheer.  When Jamie Dixon took over as head coach, the program didn’t miss a beat.  The team continued to make the NCAA tournament, and the expectation for success has been raised even higher.  Likewise, when Matt Cohen and the original Zoo founders graduated, other students were ready to leave their own mark on Pitt’s student section.  Not content to simply cheer anymore, the Zoo has helped lure football recruits, and been an active participant in local charities.

It seems appropriate for both the team and the Zoo, that in the second year of Nike sponsorship, not only has Pitt been outfitted with the “Hyper Elite” uniforms, but the jerseys proudly sport an Oakland Zoo logo.  Jamie and his players seem to always appreciate the support of the fans, and surely Pitt’s gaudy 143-11 record at the Petersen Events Center speaks to the shared success of the team and the Zoo.

Michigan State’s Hyper Elite features a giant Spartan helmet.  UConn’s features a large image of their husky mascot.  Obviously, it shows what the Zoo means to Pitt to be featured similarly.

The new jerseys are supposed to premiere on Big Monday against Syracuse, in what will be one of the most anticipated games ever at the Pete.  The contest could likely be the deciding factor for this year’s conference title.  Pitt has already sold some standing-room only tickets, so a packed and raucous crowd is obvious.

But…

Before we focus on Syracuse and being elite, let’s remember our humble beginnings.  Let’s make sure to beat Seton Hall.

After all, that’s how this whole thing started.

Bobby Gonzales = dirty man

I just wanted to let everyone know – I flew home Saturday for the weekend and Bobby Gonzales (I could care less if I spelled that right) was on my flight.  I didn’t speak to him on the plane, but I did see him when he got off.  It was a truly hilarious picture.  He was yelling into his phone, while his free hand was submerged down the front of his pants.  He got as far as halfway up his forearm.  

Bobby, even though hardly anyone knows who you are, people are still watching.
There’s a reason why he coaches in Jersey.
Hail to Pitt

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.

Seton Hall Recap

Don’t be misled by the 3 point score line against a Seton Hall team that may miss the Big East tournament, the team played really well last tonight. Seton Hall jumped out to a double digit lead early and we battled back to get a double digit lead of our own. Harvey and Nutter are two great players and once Seton Hall gets an inside presence they will be a top-8 Big East team. I was really impressed by the level of basketball in this game.

I’m just going to come out and say it, Levon Kendall played an almost perfect game. He led the team in minutes (33), scored his season high (14 points), grabbed 3 offensive boards (8 overall), and played good defense (only 2 personals). With Gray out he anchored the team down low with smart decision making and good movement without the basketball. Biggs got 21 minutes last night and looked really up for the game. His 12-16 foot jumper is going to be a weapon in both tournaments. The progress of Sam Young is continuing to happen, he had 11 points and more importantly for him no turnovers. He looks like he is starting to find that his strength is spot shooting and finishing around the basket not playing off the dribble. Fields second half performance quite possibly was the reason we won yesterday. He did a great job of getting himself some space for jumpers when the offense was breaking down. The team as a whole shot over 55% from the floor. Really good performance on the offensive end.

I think last night may have given further evidence that the team plays better basketball on the road than they do at home. Lets hope this continues when we get to Georgetown on Saturday. Gray will most likely be back and if we can get a similar front court performance to tonight with him in lineup things are looking up.

Congratulations Coach Dixon on your 100th win!

Washington: The Return Of Mike Cook

I have tried to be the voice of reason, the seeming lone defender of Mike Cook and Levon Kendall in the past few weeks. While Levon Kendall is still only averaging 2.86 points since his 10 against Marquette, Mike Cook has finally bounced back and given me some ammunition against his detractors.

In yesterday’s win over non-conference Washington, Mike scored 15 points, his most since 18 in the win over Georgetown. In the time between those two games, he averaged 6.38 points. He scored 5 or fewer points 4 times, and over 10 only twice. It might not sound like the end of the world, but he is still our second leading scorer with 10.4 per contest. Before the slump, Mike was averaging nearly 12 points per game.

Its hard to say what those 5 extra points per game would have done recently. Of course, Louisville would still have beaten us, but some of those close games might not have been so worrisome. All I know is that what Cook was able to do yesterday, to (if only temporarily) silence his critics, most likely won us the game. He shot better than 50% and ended up with 15 points. He grabbed 4 rebounds, all on the offensive end. He had 2 assists and a steal, and only 1 turnover.

With the likelihood of Gray missing tomorrow’s game at Seton Hall, or at least playing significantly fewer minutes, there is a lot more pressure on the rest of the squad. My prediction is that Levon will get the majority of time at center, with Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs taking over the Power Forward. Of course, I am hopeful that Aaron is going to play, but consider that Seton Hall is going to be significantly easier than the other three games on our schedule. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have Aaron in full strength against Georgetown than be still nursing the ankle in our biggest contest of the year.

What I really hope, however, is that Mike Cook believed what he said in his post game interview. Mike said that Jamie Dixon told him that he needed to have more fun on the court, and stop trying to force it. Cook added with a laugh, that it felt good “to finally make a shot.”

So all of you that enjoy being critical, don’t think that you are the only one. You might enjoy sitting there at your computer, trashing our struggling athletes. You might enjoy talking to your friends about the failures of our team, like you could do better. But remember, we are currently in first place in the conference. We have an opportunity to finish with a better Big East record than any other year in Pitt history. There is nobody more critical of these players than themselves. I sincerely doubt that Cook and Kendall felt that they were playing their best basketball out there. So instead of jumping on the bandwagon and jeering them, try to give them some support. It might just make a difference.

Washington Recap

There isn’t really much to say about the game yesterday. I thought that the team looked a little flat early but came on much stronger in the second half. Pitt shot 36% while Washington shot 42% and still somehow won the game. Mike Cook had the best game he has had in a while scoring 15 points. Points really came from everywhere with four players scoring in double digits. The inside game is still missing in action. Washington had 11 more rebounds and caused Gray and Kendall and all kinds of problems. Gray was a non-factor on the offensive end but he did grab 10 boards. Hopefully, he is ready to go against Seton Hall but if he isn’t look for Biggs to get his chance playing significant minutes.

As for the performance of the Zoo it was a repeat of the past couple of games. At times we had more enthusiasm than Providence and Louisville games but it wasn’t sustained. What is our problem? We aren’t holding up our end of the bargain in these games. The Pete needs to be a place other teams hate playing at again. What can we do to fix it for the final home game? Give the leaders suggestions don’t just complain about what you think they are doing wrong. If you are in the student section make sure you are making as much noise as you can. Stop expecting us to win every game in a blowout. The Oakland Zoo isn’t dead or in a coma, like some tough guys who hide behind their keyboards say, there just needs to be more effort out of all of us.