Jumping To Conclusions: Why Pittsburgh Is Overrated… For NowPosted by mlemaire on November 17th, 2011
Tucked away, within the second-to-last sentence of the preview of his team in this week’s Sports Illustrated, Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs flashed a little bit of braggadaccio. “We’re good enough to win a national title,” the 6’2” senior told SI‘s Rebecca Shore when she asked about the collection of talent on the Panthers’ roster. And although it’s still very early, after last night’s 86-76 loss to a veteran Long Beach State team, that bold claim looks quite a bit bolder. Of course, when Gibbs gave that quote, the season hadn’t even started yet and coach Jamie Dixon is looking to him for leadership this season, so what else is he supposed to say? But he isn’t the only knowledgeable source who set high expectations for Pittsburgh this year. Many experts readily picked Pittsburgh to finish near the top of the Big East alongside Connecticut and Syracuse. Some even picked them to win the conference title.
And why not? The team lost three excellent veterans in Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, and Gary McGhee. But they also returned a solid nucleus of Gibbs, Travon Woodall, Nasir Robinson, and Dante Taylor, and a highly rated recruiting class that included consensus top-10 recruit Khem Birch. They also had one of the most consistent and proven coaches in the country steering the ship. But after watching the 49ers thoroughly outplay the Panthers on their home court, it may be time for expectations to be reset.
Make no mistake, Long Beach State — the prohibitive favorite in the Big West — is loaded with not only talent but also experience, and it was on display in front of the Oakland Zoo faithful last night. Senior guards Casper Ware (28 points and six assists on 10-18 shooting) and Larry Anderson (12 points and seven assists) consistently abused the Panthers’ perimeter defense with dribble penetration. Junior James Ennis (19 points, six assists, five steals, and four rebounds) was all over the floor, and veteran big men Eugene Phelps and T.J. Robinson more than held their own against Taylor and Talib Zanna.
But Pitt just didn’t look like a team that is ready to compete for a Big East title. Gibbs got his 20 points but it took him 21 shots to get there, Taylor and Zanna allowed the 49ers to outscore the Panthers 48-31 in the paint, and Woodall was hampered by foul trouble early. Robinson was his efficient self and sophomore Lamar Patterson chipped in 16 points, but Birch played just four minutes and fellow freshmen John Johnson, Cameron Wright and Malcolm Gilbert combined to score just two points in 19 minutes of time.
But offense shouldn’t be what worries Dixon. The motion offense takes time to fully grasp and Pitt will remain one of the leaders in adjusted offensive efficiency all season. The problem is really two-fold; defense and interior presence. In addition to being solid offensive contributors, Wanamaker and Brown harassed opponents with their athleticism on the perimeter. And say what you want about McGhee’s rather limited offensive repertoire but the rugged center was one of the conference’s best rebounders and an intimidating post defender.
Physical defense has been a hallmark of Jamie Dixon-coached teams for years. Since 2009, the team has finished no worse than 35th in adjusted defensive efficiency. This season the Panthers entered last night’s game 77th in the adjusted defensive efficiency and that was against the likes of Albany and Rider. This problem is correctable as the season goes on, but Patterson and Woodall are not the perimeter defenders that Wanamaker and Brown were and that is going to allow a lot more teams to attack Pitt’s zone defense off the dribble. And when they get to the rim, there is no one deterring them from doing it over and over again.
Not enough people talked about the excellent job McGhee did as the team’s center last season. He might be the player Dixon misses the most before all is said and done. Taylor was a four-star recruit who still hasn’t found his comfort zone as he enters his third season in blue and gold. He doesn’t assert himself offensively, takes questionable shots, picks up bad fouls too often, and doesn’t have the same propensity for loose balls that McGhee did. Zanna is a solid role player off the bench, but he is slightly undersized and more polished on the offensive end which could be leave him exposed defensively against excellent interior teams. Birch was supposed to step in and fill some of the void, but his lack of early playing time shows that he will take some time to mature.
I say the Panthers are overrated for now because the season is not even a week old. Gibbs isn’t always going to shoot 8-21, Taylor and Birch still have time to emerge as dependable big men, and Dixon will have plenty of time to tighten up his team’s perimeter defense before the games really start to matter. But for now this team has far too many glaring holes to be considered a Top 10 team and if they don’t find solutions to their problems, then Gibbs’ claim will look more and more like a pipe dream with each passing game.