The Blueprint: How Pittsburgh Can Make the NCAA TournamentPosted by mlemaire on February 1st, 2012
Less than two weeks ago, Jamie Dixon and his Pittsburgh Panthers had been left for dead in the Big East. After starting the season comfortably ranked in the Top 20 nationally, the Panthers displayed chinks in the armor early in the season, but the wheels didn’t start coming off until they lost to Wagner, at home, right before Christmas. Pitt followed that disappointing loss with seven more disappointing losses in a row and looked absolutely nothing like the program that Dixon and his predecessor Ben Howland had built into a consistent winner.
But now, following a gutsy road win over a talented West Virginia team, the Panthers have a pulse, even if it is a faint one. Make no mistake, Pittsburgh’s NCAA Tournament prospects are still really dim, and even if they win out, they will really have only secured themselves a spot on the bubble. But the NCAA Tournament isn’t completely out of the question and that should be a good enough excuse for Pitt fans to start having the discussion anyway.
Let’s start with the obvious. If Pitt is going to make the NCAA Tournament, they will need to win most of if not the rest of their games. Their RPI and Strength of Schedule will both benefit from a grueling conference schedule, so they don’t need to worry about finding marquee wins as much as they need to avoid bad losses. With that said, they absolutely must win their next three games, because a loss to NIT-bound Villanova, bound-to-come-back-to-earth South Florida, or already-sliding Seton Hall would likely doom their Tournament hopes.
Assuming they can will win all three of those games they will at least re-enter the discussion. But there are three more games the Panthers should be circling on their schedule — a rematch with West Virginia at home, a trip to Louisville 10 days later, and a trip to Connecticut for the last home game of the season. There will be games to win in the conference tournament, but it’s hard to believe that anything short of the conference championship would boost Pitt into the NCAA Tournament if they lose once or more at the end of the regular season.
So what is it going to take for the Panthers to win all of those games? Well I am sure Dixon would agree with me right now but the answer begins and ends on the defensive end of the floor. The Panthers have been mediocre on defense this season, and that is being generous. They are second-to-last in both field-goal percentage defense and three-point field-goal percentage defense, which basically means the defensive lapses are a team issue and cannot be blamed on the lack of a post presence or lack of perimeter defenders.
But the Panthers’ defensive struggles have been somewhat of a mystery because on paper, it looks like Dixon should be able to mold this bunch into a solid defensive team. In the last three games the results have been positive as the Panthers have done a better job of closing out on shooters and not allowing open three-pointers but they will also need to find a way to defend the post better in the coming days because WVU’s Kevin Jones (21 points and 13 rebounds) basically had his way with the Panthers in the painted area.
Their offense has been as efficient as always this year, but the key to helping it improve is the health of point guard Tray Woodall. Woodall missed all but two games during the Panthers’ eight-game losing streak and both games he played in — A December 27 loss to Notre Dame and a January 21 loss to Louisville — he scored zero points and was basically a non-factor. But since that loss to Louisville, Woodall has played in all three of the Pitt wins and he has played well. When he is at his best, Woodall is a dynamic point guard who can both find the open teammates on the break and knock down open shots as well.
Most importantly, his ball-handling and managing of the offense allow star shooting guard Ashton Gibbs to move back to the wing and concentrate on being a scorer rather than a distributor. It’s probably unfair to give Woodall all the credit for the fact that Pitt has shot better than 46% from the field in all three of their conference wins, but there is no doubt he has played an important role, and will continue to play that role for the rest of the season.
The final key to Pittsburgh’s NCAA Tournament hopes will be the play of big men Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna. Neither of them has great size, and they aren’t going to be the formidable rim protectors that scare opponents from driving to the paint. But if they can play smart defense, rebound the ball effectively, and score when the opportunity presents itself, Pittsburgh will keep winning. The interesting aspect to the play of the two big men is that they are almost never on the court at the same time, despite what would seem like a logical move.
But forwards Nasir Robinson and Lamar Patterson have been so physical and versatile on the wings, and they rebound their positions so well, that Dixon has stuck with a smaller lineup throughout most games. For now, Dixon seems willing to go with whomever has the hot hand or fits better matchup-wise. Against Georgetown’s smaller frontcourt, that player was Zanna. But against the Mountaineers, it was Taylor. It doesn’t matter which of the two is playing though, it just matters that they are a steadying presence in the paint.