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Pittsburgh Panthers

by Andrew Force | March 1st, 2008

Key Wins: Oklahoma State, N-Duke, Georgetown, @Syracuse, West Virginia
Key Losses: @Dayton, @Villanova, Rutgers, @Marquette, @West Virginia
Key Stat: 3-point FG %. Pittsburgh, despite the attention defenses place on guarding DaJuan Blair and Sam Young, is the fifth worst three-point shooting team in the Big East.

Biggest Strengths: Pittsburgh, as a team, makes a conscience effort to get back on defense. The transition defense is impressive. While Blair hammers the offensive glass, all guards and smaller forwards bolt back towards the defensive end as the shot goes up. In the Big East transition buckets materialize seemingly instantaneously. The athleticism and habitual hunger to score quickly puts real pressure on teams that don’t retreat well.

Pittsburgh has strong players. This is a holdover from Ben Howland’s regime in the Steel City. He emphasized physical fitness, and the players to this day begin the season with intentionally powerful physiques. Their strength and toughness helps perpetuate the legend. Pittsburgh is a tough city and expects their teams to act accordingly.

Blair rebounds like a kid who hit puberty sooner than his naturally smaller peers. Oddly Blair is sixth in the Big East in steals per game. The team is loaded with two-handed rebounders and prideful post defenders. Nothing easy in the lane.

Biggest Weaknesses: Pittsburgh plays tough body on body defense, like Washington State and Southern Illinois. Around the arc, where Pitt cannot overpower the opponent the guards falter. Levance Fields and Ronald Ramon get beat off the dribble constantly. Fields, recovering from a broken foot, first returned to game action the day after Valentine’s Day. Even at full strength Fields is a below average lateral mover. He fails to keep his man in front of him, especially when that man has the ball in hand.

Keith Benjamin is the only perimeter defender that excels. Further evidence of their deficiencies up top exists on close outs. Most teams will initiate the offensive possession with a ball screen. The Pitt bigs are poor at “showing”, stepping out to slow down the ball handler. Panther guards give too much of a cushion to long range weapons. Perhaps Fields plays off his man to compensate for his temporary immobility. Maybe Levance just does not want to exhaust himself on defense. Either way it is a problem. Formerly an opponent shooting above 40% was a black stain on the Pitt Panthers’ collective soul. This season, as 12 of 14 Big East teams have done, shooting 40% against Pitt has become commonplace.

Most Important Player: Sam Young. Each year Pitt excels with second-rate talent relative to the Big East elite. Sam Young is a different breed. The junior earned an odd distinction as National Prep School Player of the Year in 2005 from Scout.com. He possesses an amazingly wide array of moves and fakes.

Facing then #6 Duke Young displayed an offensive kaleidoscope. On a pick-n-roll he popped out to the corner and netted a slight fadeaway. Then he converted a difficult leaning banker. With range out to twenty feet, Young truly is an outstanding face up player. In addition to facing the basket Young has to face the reality of being a leader for the first time in his career. “He is a quiet guy,” admits Head Coach Jamie Dixon. “I have talked to him a lot but he is never going to be a rah-rah guy, but he can lead by example, by how hard he works and that has to be a constant.”

X-Factor: DaJuan Blair. Strong, powerful Blair resembles a bear in his physique. Generally space-eater defines a talentless big man. Well Blair bear eats space like few before him.

“We lost Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall,” said Dixon. “There was a real need for him (Blair). Those were our two 5’s. He has played well and gotten better as the game has season on and on.”

Once the Smiling Beast finds an ideal position to offensively rebound he unloads the Winnebago, eager to camp out. When motivated Blair earns Pitt a minimum of five extra shots per game. Some rebounds he tips back but most he owns like a woman owns her wedding ring. Never will an opponent wrangle a ball out of the paws of this bear.

Might Lose When: Ramon is a good shooter who has seen more than a handful of bad shooting nights this year. The Panthers really become overwhelming when Young is slashing, Blair is banging, and Ramon is deadly accurate from beyond. As the third or fourth option on the floor Ramon gets plenty of open shots. Against Notre Dame he missed four first half shots, all of them should have been buried. Earlier in the year the 2-guard missed all four three-pointers at Cincy; Pitt lost. He missed all five when hosting Rutgers in a Pitt loss. He also all four triples at Marquette and all six at Dayton, both losses for the Panthers. “He took good shots,” admits Dixon. “In our losses 3-point shooting really stood out (as the culprit).” The previously reliable shooter has become anything but. If the threat of Ramon evaporates, then zoning teams can condense, narrowing Young and Fields’ lanes to the hoop. When he can’t shoot straight Ramon only offers experience and poise. He loses almost all value.

Might Surprise You With: Sam Young’s variegated game. Myth: Sam Young is the most improved player in the Big East. Truth: Young was this good last year, just buried on the depth chart. “It is amazing. Last year Sam was in a limited role on that basketball team,” says Stan Heath, First-Year Head Coach of South Florida. “You see him this year and you say ‘How in the heck was a guy like that playing in a limited role?’” When he did find court time the innovative forward had to maneuver around the giant parking cone Aaron Gray. Sure Gray had a soft touch and an exceptional back to the basket game, but concerning Sam Young he was a roadblock, a lane-clogger nothing more.

Predicted finish in the NCAA’s: Ronald Ramon misses. One and done.

Editor’s Note: I think Andrew implies with his “one and done” statement that Pitt makes it through to the second round. Now that Levance Fields looks fully healthy again, that may be selling the Panthers a bit short. Blair fizzled in the second half of Big East play because there were so few perimeter threats for the Panthers. But now that Fields is back, look for him to have more room to operate, and for Pitt to regain the swagger it had when it knocked off Duke @ MSG earlier this year.

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3 Responses to “Pittsburgh Panthers”  

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  1. robert carola Says:

    your comments about Pitt basketball are ignorant and foolish, to suggest one and done in NCAA Tourney, do you know how clumsy of a prediction that was? First, Pitt had only two returning starters from last year and they missed all of January and February and only one returned. 2) Pitt could only play 7 scholarship players during that time frame and lets not forget Ramon had to learn a new position in his Senior year. 3) Pitt just won the Big East Tourney enough said… you have proven your way out of your depth…maybe waterpolo you should report on?

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  2. heather Says:

    I think the aside to this article was a bit more spot on – Pitt suffered two major player losses later in the season corresponding to late season struggles. When they were healthy – they were top 10 for consecutive weeks (I think making it to 6 at one point), able to beat Duke and even without Fields they beat Georgetown by a wide margin in the regular season. Pitt does struggle in the NCAA tournament – but are positioned to do well in terms of how the brackets worked out. I think because they are hot right now, Ramon will be spot on and they will make at least to the elite eight. This analysis was sort of disappointing and did not seem to provide an unbiased assessment compared to some of the other writers.

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  3. Andrew Force Says:

    @ robert Carola
    Pitt’s season should be broken up into three parts when analyzing it.

    Pre-injuries to Mike Cook and Levance Fields

    During Levance’s injury

    Post-injury (to Levance)

    I completed this article between the second and third stages. There was a time when Pitt heard unfamiliar talk about bubbleness. I always believed they were in, as did most analysts, but NO ONE projected Pitt as an Elite 8 team. Now they might. Even the exceptional beat writer of the Pittsburgh Post Gazzette, Ray Fittipaldo suggested the Panthers were susceptible to an early exit from the Big Dance.

    This is the Pitt team I witnessed…

    On Notre Dame
    “They just played smarter than we did,” Blair said. “They made smarter plays at the end. We fought hard, but we didn’t play smart. We had a couple of dumb plays.”
    On Notre Dame
    “We didn’t make any winning plays,” Benjamin said. “We didn’t do anything right in the second half when the game was on the line. When you do that, that’s usually how you lose.”

    I will eagerly agree Levance is back at the helm, leading the Panthers to the Big Dance.

    After beating Marquette in Big East Tournament COACH DIXON: “Yeah, obviously, it was night and day. It was something that we anticipated. A lot of people thought it was going to be easy to come back and be ready to go right away. Even probably Levance thought it would be easier than it was. We talked about it, but still I don’t think you’re ever prepared for it. Usually guys are out for the season when they’re out that long.”

    After seeing Levance perform so poorly at Marquette and at Notre Dame, I did not believe he would recover completely this season. I was wrong, foolish perhaps.

    Ignorant? On Pitt I rarely differed from the norm.

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