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.