"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Know your opponent: Pittsburgh Panthers

On Thursday night the red-hot Marquette Warriors renew hostilities with the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Bradley Center. Since MU only plays the Panthers once during the regular season we wanted to seek out an expert's take of Jamie Dixon's bunch, and we're pleased to welcome Chas Rich from the PittBlather and AOL FanHouse back to CrackedSidewalks for more on the Panthers. You can check out our contribution to PittBlather here.

After losing three All BIG EAST caliber players from last year's team, what is the Panthers' formula for success this season?

To some degree it hasn't changed. The tempo is slower than it was last year, more along the lines of what it was before Sam Young became the offensive threat he was last season.

Pitt plays primarily man-to-man defense, but has been more willing to go to zone when needed. The offense is still an motion style, but with less emphasis on working it inside the same way. There is more dribble penetration and an emphasis on the guards getting the looks.

Pitt and MU have had some tough games going back to 2003, and the record since then is evenly matched at 4-4. What is the Pitt perspective on games with Marquette.

Well, I know it doesn't have the same energy without the eminently hateable Tom Crean (I still do not want to talk about the Indiana game). The series isn't a rivalry for three reasons: not enough history and hate built up; no connection with geography; and the lack of a football competition or any other connection between the schools.

That said, it always a tough game and matters to me more than, say St. John's or Seton Hall. I look at it as one of the most challenging matchups and barometers of Pitt's overall ability and versatility come March. With Marquette being such a guard-heavy and speedy team they really challenge Pitt to adjust.

The Panthers raced out to a 5-0 start in BE action, lost four of 5 and has now won three in a row. Are the Panthers inconsistent or is this just how the BE is playing out for Dixon's crew?

And no.
And sort of.

Simply put, this is still a very young team. That means spells where they play to a level of the competition. It is also a team that takes a lot more jump shots than in past years. Jump shooting is not a consistent thing, no matter how much we wish it was. When the shots fall, it's all good. When they aren't the teams struggles. There's more stagnation on offense. Less motion and more attempts to drive without players moving.

Another factor, relating to youth is adjustments. In the non-con, teams threw some zones at Pitt and they simply didn't know what to do. That led to insane struggles and great frustration. But they learned, and by the time they faced Syracuse they knew how to attack it.

They then had to make a new adjustment that they struggled to do when they lost 4-of-5. Ashton Gibbs being shut down. It actually started the game before against Louisville, but what changed was teams realized just how dangerous Gibbs was so he was absolutely blanketed. He couldn't get clean looks and he started forcing more shots because the team relied so heavily on him. The last few games have seen the team show that they are adjusting to the tactic. Working harder to move the ball and give Gibbs screens and shots. Plus, simply not relying so heavily on making Gibbs provide all the offense.

I think inconsistent isn't quite right, but I would understand how people would see it that way. With the exception of the game at WV, Pitt was in all of the games they lost. They just couldn't make those stops or hit the shots in the final minutes -- up 1 on Georgetown with a little more than 6 minutes left, down 4 to USF with 90+ seconds left, losing by 3 to Seton Hall when Gibbs game-tying 3 failed twice in the final 8 seconds. Make no mistake, Pitt deserved to lose those games. Yet they still had chances and difference between those losses and wins over Cinci, Louisville and even UConn probably were not not too far away.

As you know the Big East is rough especially on the road. Pitt has lost only once at home -- to Georgetown -- all other losses came on the road or neutral sites. The three straight road wins at Syracuse, UConn and Cinci look even more amazing when you think about it. It also created unrealistic expectations that Pitt could keep winning on the road like that.

The last few years Pitt has had good defense while forcing very few turnovers. Can you share a little bit of insight about Pitt's defensive strategy to not force turnovers?

That's easy. Pitt's defense is very conservative and keeping in front of the offense. It is about not giving up position, and forcing opponents to get impatient. Limiting possessions and being able to be positioned to get the rebounds. Pitt is a slow-tempo team. Not just on offense. They want to control the pace by keeping teams from going quickly on offense. Going for turnovers is a risk. No matter how calculated it may be. It means risking losing the position, giving up the easy drive to the basket or surrendering the passing lane for the open look. Pitt's defense is about making sure teams work for each possession and expend energy doing it.

It is also about the personnel. Teams -- like Marquette -- that use the turnovers as part of their defense use their guards and quickness to get in there and slap at the ball. Pitt's guards just aren't coached that way and for at least a couple of them, would not excel at it.

One of the game's best battles looks to be the matchup between Pitt's Gilbert Brown and MU's Jimmy Butler. Brown has show marked improvement year to year, any sense of how this matchup might play out?

Well, I'm not entirely sure that Brown and Butler will face each other directly. Defensively, it would not surprise me to see Jermaine Dixon (and also Brad Wanamaker) working to contain Butler. Brown is not as good defensively as he could be, while Dixon is Pitt's defender. A nifty factoid in the second half of the WVU-Pitt game on Friday Butler was to 1-9 shooting when Dixon was guarding him and 8-13 with anyone else.

Brown is definitely the most polished, athletic player on Pitt's roster at this point. He has improved his 3-point shooting, which gives him more room to take guys off the dribble and attack.

From a Pitt perspective, what will you be watching for early in Thursday's game?

How Pitt handles the defensive pressure from Marquette. Too many early turnovers will not be a good thing. It will put Pitt behind and further embolden the typically loud crowd at the Bradley Center.

Chas, thanks very much!

1 comment:

Oliver said...

He sounds overconfident, so I hope that extends to the team. This is not the Pitt of last year.

I would like to provide some insight by saying this will be a very close game, but that is every game this year.