Pittsburgh Has the Goods to Make a Run

Posted by Matt Auerbach on January 14th, 2016

Whether attributable to a relative lack of postseason accomplishment or a bruising (read: unappealing) style of play, the consistent success sustained by Pittsburgh during the 10 years from 2002-11 has been largely forgotten. Consider that the Panthers were at some point ranked in the AP top 10 in each of those campaigns and won fewer than 25 games only once during that span. However, in an era of program success measured through March triumphs, Pittsburgh’s lack of a Final Four appearance kept it from the most elite tier. Transitioning from the Big East to the ACC in 2013 didn’t seem to help. While programs like Syracuse and Louisville seamlessly made the move, Pitt struggled to find a niche. A fifth-place finish and a trip to the Round of 32 two years ago was followed by a disappointing 19-15 season in 2014-15. With a similar roster returning this season, Pitt was projected to finish in 10th place by ACC media in their preseason poll.

Jamie Dixon's Team Moves the Ball Well

Say what you want, Jamie Dixon ALWAYS has his teams right in the thick of things. (Getty)

A hot start from the Panthers was largely ignored, citing a non-conference schedule among the nation’s worst (322nd). But in winning their first three ACC games in convincing fashion, it is high time to pay attention to the a 14-1 (3-0 ACC) team that boasts one of college basketball’s best offensive attacks. And not only is the second-best offense (according to KenPom) very effective, it is also pleasing to watch. Dixon’s team currently ranks 18th in effective field goal percentage — making 55 percent of its twos, 39 percent of its threes, and 80 percent from the line (best in the nation). Given those achievements, Pitt hasn’t abandoned its signature toughness, rebounding nearly 39 percent of its misses (11th nationally) and turning the ball over only 15 percent of the time (23rd).

Michael Young and Jamel Artis are perhaps most responsible for the Panthers’ offensive renaissance. Young, built in the mold of a traditional Big East frontcourt player of yore, leads the team in scoring (17.5 PPG) and rebounding (6.8 RPG) while also posting the 31st highest offensive rating in college basketball. His classmate Artis, more of a hybrid forward, has the acumen to score and rebound on the interior and the skill as a facilitator to operate on the perimeter. Pitt’s first ACC win against Syracuse served as a canvas to highlight his versatility. An 18-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist effort was a microcosm of Artis’ season — a year that will end with plenty of professional chatter surrounding his future as a 3-and-D wing at the next level.

Jamel Artis' versatility is one of many reasons to begin to take Pittsburgh seriously. (Baltimore Sun)

Jamel Artis’ versatility is one of many reasons to begin to take Pittsburgh seriously.
(Baltimore Sun)

While any bullishness on Pitt’s chances starts with that dynamic duo, it is the steadying hand of four-year starting point guard James Robinson who keeps the machine humming. Sporting an incomprehensible 6.75-to-1 assist to turnover ratio, the senior has shot the ball much more effectively in his final collegiate season. Graduate transfers Sterling Smith and Rafael Maia have been the perfect complements to the mainstays. Smith’s ability to stretch the defense, shooting a ridiculous 49 percent from beyond the arc this season, has made defenses pay for doubling Young and Artis. Maia, with his lunchpail playing style, does all the defensive dirty work that is critical to a team’s success. No Panther is averaging more than 30 minutes per game to this point, as Dixon has quality depth at his disposal. At the forefront of the bench are Sheldon Jeter and Chris Jones, two versatile players with size and skill who bring capable defense, ball-handling and rebounding to the team.

Tonight’s game at Louisville will provide the Panthers with their sternest test of the season since a 13-point home defeat to Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. A loss will give the skeptics momentum, linking their gaudy record to a weak schedule. But regardless of that game’s outcome, Pitt seems well-poised to compete with Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and the others for a spot among the top third of the conference standings. In Young and Artis, Dixon has two players capable of offensively carrying the team for an extended period. Combine that with a seasoned lead guard, a marksman to stretch the defense, and an explosive bench, and it might be time to consider whether we overlooked Pittsburgh. Is this the year when Pittsburgh rejoins the national conversation. The pieces are certainly in place.

Matthew Auerbach (70 Posts)

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