"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

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Blog Exclusive: PittSportsBlather Previews the Panthers

One of the best aspects of the Big East Conference is its passionate fan base -- and we're lucky to have so many well-written blogs to chronicle the proceedings. The PittSportsBlather is certainly one of the best of the bunch, with up to date analysis of Panther athletics. Following an invitation from Chas, the mind behind the PittSportsBlather, here's a Q/A he prepared on the state of the Panthers program and what MU can expect from them on Saturday.

We've done the same thing on his blog, offering perspectives on the Marquette program. Please click here for the link. Check back throughout the day -- we'll try to update these Q/As before game time.

Without further adieu, lets get caught up on the Pittsburgh Panthers:

1) On the surface, this seemed like it might be a rebuilding year for Pittsburgh after losing Taft, Troutman and Demetris from last year's team. What are the biggest reasons for the Panthers' surprising success so far?

PSB: I think most Pitt fans were anticipating a rebuilding year. From the end of last year to the start of this one, I was saying that Pitt could go anywhere from 6-10 to 10-6.

You have to start with the players. Krauser is playing better than ever and usually in much better control. Gray is showing a scoring touch inside, and wants every rebound -- not just assuming that it will come to him because of his size. The players seem to be taking their cues from those two. They're out there playing hard, and trying to get the ball to the open man for the good shot, rather than just looking for their shot each time. It rubs off, and spreads. The players know they will get a chance.

There are plenty of underclassmen who seemed to get "it" from the start. Namely, that you don't get the playing time unless you play defense. You can struggle offensively, but if the effort isn't there on defense you will be sitting down for most of the game.

There is also growth from the head coach, Jamie Dixon, that has facilitated the kind of season Pitt has had (which I will address a little later).

2) Carl Krauser is the best PG in the Big East, but he almost didn't return for his senior season. Can you breakdown his strengths and weaknesses - particularly his ability to defend the dribble penetration? Also, which players benefit the most from Krauser's style of play?

PSB: Actually, I think Marcus Williams at UConn might be the best PG, but I digress. Krauser is actually playing off the ball more. He's playing Shooting Guard this season, but really seems to be co-PG when you see him on the court.

Usually, announcers talk about his toughness and his willingness to get inside. That is one of his strengths, but I think his biggest on offense is a deceptively fast first step. He is strong, but when he wants to take it inside, the big thing is that he will make a first step to get past his defender that catches them off guard. He plays a tough defense, happily going body to body with the player to not let them get space and separation. Passing the ball, he is still the best on the team at getting it inside to the frontcourt guys.

His weakness, is forgetting about the team at times. That was the big grumbling about him last year. That he would hold the ball too long looking for his shot rather than getting it to someone else. That it would cause the team to stand around and disrupt the team's game. Part of why he is at SG is so he won't think he has to do something everytime. The only outburst of that sort of behavior happened in the loss to St. John's last week.

3) What sort of team gives Pittsburgh the most trouble, offensively and defensively?

PSB: Offensively, there are two types of teams that can hurt Pitt. A team that shoots a lot of threes is scary. Pitt's perimeter defenders do a lot of slapping at the ball, trying to get it loose. That means their hands aren't up often enough to contest the shot and they can be taken out of position on a fake, to free the shooter.

The other is a team with an individual player that can go inside and out from the frontcourt -- a big guy or power forward. It can be a guy like Pittsnogle who can shoot the 3, or play inside. Or a guy like Curtis Sumpter who has a nice mid-range jumper, but also has such a first step that he can easily blow past a defender who steps out on him.

Defensively, it would be the teams that get physical back. Teams that will go body to body and deny the passing lanes. Pitt is very big this year on getting the ball to a guy for a good shot. If a team closes off the passing lanes, it forces the Pitt players to start putting up their own shot and seems to disrupt the team.

4) Coach Jamie Dixon has managed to maintain the momentum created by Ben Howland. What's Coach Dixon's greater strength: developing talent or recruiting talent?

PSB: I'm really not sure. This is only year 3.

A lot of the credit for recruiting the talent tends to go to Associate Head Coach Barry Rohrssen, at the same time it still comes down to a head coach who can close the deal. Clearly Dixon is doing that.

As for the development, if you asked fans last year, that would have been a big issue considering the way Taft played, the fact that the team never seemed to improve during the season, and the underclassmen rarely got time on the court -- suggesting they weren't ready.

This year, the development of Gray and DeGroat; and the freshmen players who are visibly improving each game has silenced a lot of criticisms (or at least mine).

Again, I don't mean to be wishy-washy, but this is just his 3rd year as head coach and the answer isn't clear to me at this time.

5) What was the reaction within the Pittsburgh community to a) the defections of the VaTech, BC, and Miami, and b) the addition of the four CUSA institutions?

PSB: Got a couple of hours?

Lots of anger. Plenty at the ACC. Also, though, a lot of it actually at the Big East for letting it happen, i.e., not doing the hard step of splitting the conference a few years back between football schools and basketball only schools. There's a sense of inevitability to that considering the interests and money are so different between the two types of programs.

Miami was never liked, because, well, they are Miami. Still, I don't sense the real hostility to them that there is to BC and VT. Those two schools looked worse. VT because they were originally left out of the ACC expansion and led the charge to preserve the BE and talked nobly about it, then when political pressure in Virginia forced the ACC extend an offer they jumped at it like a crack-whore.

BC was even worse because they were out, in then out of the BE. Oscillating between naked self-interest and high-minded statements.

As for the new kids. Don't take this the wrong way, but there is a strong belief that this is a stop-gap measure to give the conference time to regroup and strengthen both sides. That the present configuration can't last, and that the BE will finally split around 2010 (when the agreement to stay in this form ends). At that time the football schools will go their own way as will the basketball schools.

So, for Marquette and DePaul, I would compare it to a buddy's new girlfriend, who you know he'll eventually dump, because he always does. So you treat them nice enough, but almost at a distance because there's no real point in getting to actually know them. (Okay, the analogy kind of sucks, but you get the idea.)

6) When did you realize that this team would be able to successfully compete in the Big East this year, despite such a young roster?

PSB: The South Carolina and Wisconsin games at the end of the non-con clinched it. Those were supposed to be the stumble/tough games. Pitt won them, and saw the young players make key contributions. Sam Young was the reason Pitt won at South Carolina and in the Wisconsin game all three freshmen made big contributions to lead the win. When you see the underclass lead the way against the good competition, it is exciting.

Earlier, though, the 37-point blasting Pitt put on Auburn. That opened eyes because both teams were supposed to be rebuilding. To have Pitt absolutely dismantle an SEC team, even one that was down, was stunning and started raising expectations.

Thanks for your time today, Chas.

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