This week, I will do a question exchange with a pair of Pittsburgh Panther bloggers.
The first, with Eye of a Panther, is below. Take a look at my answers to the questions on St. John's at the Eye of a Panther site.
1- The big question: is Pitt really this good? Are they playing over their heads? Is this excellent record a surprise? What accounts for the difference between the expectations for this team and the results? Is it the coaching or did the rest of the league and writers underestimate the team's talent?
I think after the last two games, fans are wondering if they really are as good as they had been playing. Honestly, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Pitt has played well at times, but has certainly struggled in some wins - most notably, the Louisville game.
While they may not be or may not be Top 10 good, I don't think it's a case of them playing over their heads. Jamie Dixon has quite a system anchored on rebounding and defense and as long as he keeps recruiting the same types of players, it seems he can plug virtually anyone in to achieve the same results.
The excellent record is a bit of a surprise to most. Perhaps against better judgment, I picked Pitt to win 20 or 21 regular season games at the start of the season. But I'll admit that after a close opening win against Wofford and the loss to Indiana, I was ready to back off of that sentiment. Pitt is underestimated a lot and while I'm not sure how much it really helps them as a 'prove it to the world' type of thing, it can't hurt. This year, they lost four players who are either in the NBA or playing overseas, but the same style of play is there.
The difference in between the expectations that most had set and the actual results of being a top 20 team is that the players really buy into what Coach Dixon sells. I posted earlier on a Louisville message board that Pitt is the type of team that will walk into your house, punch you in the mouth, eat your food and leave without apologizing for it. At their best, they're a physical, tough team that wins with good defense and rebounding and scores enough points to win. When they stray from that formula as they've done in the past couple of games, they struggle.
2- I'm watching the Pitt/ Seton Hall game thanks to the magic of DVR and... the Panthers look out of sync. What did Seton Hall do to disrupt the Panthers?
While I watched parts of the replay, I have to admit I missed much of it. But it's what I alluded to earlier and also mentioned on my blog tonight - the defense wasn't there, the turnovers were plentiful, and Pitt didn't shoot well. Pitt can survive maybe one or two of those things happening, but when all three happen, it's tough to overcome. Pitt's best player, Ashton Gibbs has really struggled from the field over the past three games, shooting around 25%. Defenders are paying more attention to him, and it's okay if he struggles and other guys step up.
Jermaine Dixon, Pitt's starting shooting guard, had 11 points, but only on about 33% shooting if I remember correctly. Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown, two players Pitt rely heavily on, also struggled and as a result, Pitt had virtually no offense. Seton Hall also crushed Pitt inside as former Pitt recruit, Herb Pope had 19 points and 9 rebounds against only 6 points and 5 rebounds combined against Pitt's centers, Gary McGhee/Dante Taylor. That simply won't get it done.
3- Give me a rundown of the team: the bigs, the wings, the guards. Who are the impact players? Who are the weak links? Which player is most likely to go off against St. John's?
Gary McGhee and Dante Taylor are the men in the middle for Pitt. Both are capable of playing well, but both (as evidenced in the last game) can also struggle. Neither is particularly strong offensively, though both CAN rebound well when they want to.
After them, Pitt really has five guys they rely heavily on for productive minutes:
The guards are Ashton Gibbs and Jermaine Dixon - Gibbs is the best player for the Panthers - and if left open, has the capability to score at will. Automatic from the line (set a school record with 40+ straight free throws) and a decent defender. Not strictly a jump shooter and can go to the basket if need be (though not at will). If not defended, capable of going off on teams at any given moment.
Dixon is probably Pitt's best defender, but his shot has seen a steady decline from last year. He was injured early on this year, but now 11 games in, he's still shooting under 35% from the field and under 22% from three-point range. Decent scorer, but needs to master the difficult art of scoring more while taking fewer shots. As the only senior starter on the team, maybe as close to a leader as Pitt has.
The forwards are Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, and Nasir Robinson. Wanamaker is a very good all around player for Pitt - another great rebounder for a SG/SF (averaging nearly 7 per game at only 6'4") and this year has become a reliable scorer. At his best when Gibbs draws defenders to him and has shown the ability to drive to the basket and hit clutch shots (see Louisville game).
Brown is Pitt's most athletic player and maybe the most versatile. Good defender, freakishly athletic, and reliable player. I used to call anyone who thought he could play in the NBA delusional. I'm still not sure he can, but it doesn't seem so far fetched to me anymore if he has a strong year next year. Along with Wanamaker, I'd say he's in the conversation for Pitt's 2nd best player behind Gibbs.
Robinson is an average player statistical-wise, but someone Pitt needs to play well. He rebounds very well for his size and while he showed he can score (had 26 against Louisville), generally doesn't get above double figures. Nice player who Pitt relies on for toughness and defends fairly well.
I'd consider the weak links to be Pitt's backup point guards. If Ashton Gibbs is ever injured or forced into foul trouble and Pitt has to rely on either Travon Woodall or Chase Adams to come off the bench to play significant minutes, they could be in trouble. Woodall, a redshirt freshman is not a strong player and prone to turnovers and playing out of control. And even though Adams is a senior transfer who was expected to contribute, has not shown the type of game expected and as such, has only been rewarded with ten total minutes in Big East play. These reasons combined with Gibbs' strong play is the reason he has played no fewer than 35 minutes in each Big East game.
4- Pitt is in an enviable position: the team has a McDonald's All-American coming off the bench. How is he doing? How does Pitt recruit so much talent to the school?
Dante Taylor has done well - at times. He's also looked completely lost at times. He saw his smallest amount of action in the Seton Hall game and didn't look particularly well (seven minutes, no points, one rebound). I don't know - he's really tough to figure out. One minute he makes you wonder why he's not starting over the sometimes robotic-like Gary McGhee and others he makes you wonder how he was an All-American to begin with. Part of the problem is that he's playing out of position. He's a Power Forward, but Jamie Dixon insists on playing him as Pitt's backup center and that's worked probably as much as it hasn't worked. I was one of the people who drank the kool-aid and expected him to be a major contributor right away. We basically saw what DeJuan Blair did and via the art of extrapoloation, expected more because Taylor was an All-American. It just goes to show you that stuff like that doesn't always matter. I think Taylor will end up being a very good player for Pitt - just hasn't happened as fast as we thought. But he's definitely shown flashes and that's encouraging.
One of the biggest misnomers is that Pitt actually gets a lot of top talent. Traditionally, it seems they get guys are are maybe slightly overlooked by other schools. Guys that have potential, but not considered All-American talent. With DeJuan Blair, who was ranked pretty high I believe, Dante Taylor this year, and Isaiah Epps next year, that's starting to change. I'd expect that Pitt has started getting better players because of all the winning. By playing in the Big East, they get a fair amount of television exposure and seem to be on the national stage quite a bit. If Pitt can continue to win, I think they'll be able to land more of the type of talent other more established programs can. But at some point, they're going to have to take that next step and get to some Final Fours in order to get some of the 'Best of the Best.'
5- It's been a long, LONG time since St. John's has had big expectations. What's that like? What will make this year a satisfying one? And when will Jamie Dixon get to a Final Four?
Well, the expectations thing certainly took some time to get used to. As a Pitt student in the 1990s, the team was pretty bad. I remember them getting to the NIT one year and there was some considerable buzz around campus about that. The first few years of the 2000s, I think everyone was waiting for the 'fluke' to end at some point. But it's continued and Pitt has been a pretty good team for almost ten straight years now. It's fun to be honest with you and the biggest change for me personally is that I find myself caring more about Pitt than I do my favorite pro teams - before it was kind of the opposite.
To be honest with you, I probably won't be fully satisfied until this team makes a Final Four. You can make as many Sweet 16s as you want, but eventually it gets old. I don't say this to sound like a snot-nosed fan because as a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, I'm the farthest thing from it. But it's certainly a little frustrating to see a team get to a wall every time and not get over it.
Last year, they went to the Elite Eight and got over that Sweet 16 wall, but that was a team capable of winning it all so it was still a disappointment. If it came down to it, for this team to make a Sweet 16 would have to be considered a decent year - especially after losing so much production. And if I reflected a month or so after the season, I would think that would be looked at as a pretty good run.
Ultimately, programs are measured by Final Fours appearances and that's where Pitt needs to go to be considered an elite program. When that happens is anybody's guess. Pitt had a couple of teams in this run of success capable of getting there, but you've got to play well and have a lot of breaks go your way. It could happen in the next year and it might not happen for ten...or longer. Got to have everything break your way.