Pitt’s Bruising Toughness on Display at Legends ClassicPosted by Bennet Hayes on November 26th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Monday night’s Pittsburgh vs. Texas Tech game from the Legends Classic.
Texas Tech has a long ways to go before becoming a complete basketball team, but that doesn’t mean that the Red Raiders couldn’t have offered Pittsburgh its first real challenge of the season on Monday night. After all, when you begin the campaign with a quartet of opponents (Savannah State, Howard, Lehigh and Fresno State) sporting a combined 4-16 record versus D-I competition, any foe with a power conference membership may be enough to constitute a challenge. But any hope of a taut battle was quickly erased, as Pittsburgh used a 34-8 first half run to power themselves to a 23-point halftime lead, ending this Legends Classic semifinal before it ever really began. It was a dominant show of strength from a program quite accustomed to delivering them, but is this Panther team capable of conjuring up the echoes of past glory? Wins over Big-12 also-rans won’t answer that question in isolation, but Jamie Dixon seems to believe this Pitt team, as bruising and tough as so many of those that came before them, may have the talent and chemistry to do just that.
Pitt’s 23-point victory was achieved despite an unusual Panther failing: Its opponent grabbed more rebounds than the men in blue and gold. Jamie Dixon’s teams have classically been downright fearsome on the offensive boards – their offensive rebounding percentage has been among the nation’s five best in four of the past five seasons – but the physical identity that Dixon breeds impacts the backboards at both ends. Dixon admitted that “rebounding hurt us tonight,” but the scoreboard showed that little else did. Pitt continued its early season display of offensive efficiency by making more threes (10) than lost turnovers (eight), along the way to making 16 of 21 free throw attempts. Dixon said after the game that he had felt like Pitt’s offense had been ahead of their defense all season long. With all due respect to a stellar Panthers effort on the defensive end (it took a late barrage of Texas Tech made field goals to lift their field goal percentage to just 39 percent for the evening), crisp ball movement and a career day from emerging leader Lamar Patterson (23 points on 8-of-13 shooting) certainly substantiated Dixon’s claim. The offensive precision is a great sign for Pitt. Dixon can turn a good defensive team into an elite one with his coaching; It’s far harder for him, or any coach, to turn an average shooting team into an excellent one.
Patterson’s impressive evening aside, where this Pitt team most deviates from the blueprint of its successful predecessors is in the presence of an established leader and scorer. There is no Brandin Knight. Carl Krauser, Sam Young, Levance Fields – anywhere to be found. Tray Woodall, eligibity exhausted last March, was but a spectator on Monday night at the Barclays Center. It’s easy to forget that the Panthers have consistently possessed a player of this mold – a creative, accomplished offensive threat – because the Pitt ethos is so team-driven and defensive-minded. Maybe Patterson can develop into that player for Dixon. Perhaps Talib Zanna, the other senior leader that Dixon praised for his leadership, can find some consistency with his low-post scoring. An offensive leader is far from a necessity, but on a team that plans to see a lot of the late shot-clock (Pitt again ranks among the slowest teams in the D-I), finding a player capable of manufacturing offense on their own could prove enormous.
Don’t forget to have your magnifying glass on Pitt tonight. This Legends Classic championship match-up with Stanford may be your only real chance to see the Panthers play an NCAA Tournament-caliber team before the ACC season (and aside from a December 17 game against Cincinnati). That being said, we all know that overreacting to a single November result is a fool’s exercise. It does become a little more pardonable when presented with a schedule as fluffy as this Pittsburgh slate, but failing to win the Legends Classic would hardly doom its season. Minimal effort, soft defense, and me-first offense would prove crippling, but don’t hold your breath — none of that will be on display on this night. It’s still early, but at the very least, Jamie Dixon has these Panthers again playing tough and together – a development that was on full display Monday night.