The second part of our question exchange with two Pittsburgh Panther bloggers.
Thanks, guys, for participating; and St. John's readers, check out their sites for pregame info and my answers to their questions on St. John's.
1- Is Pitt this good? Is the record and the player development a surprise? Are these guys playing over their heads?
Are they as good as they started in the Big East? No. They had things come together well. Pardon the standard boiler-plate, but they are a young team and things fell into place unbelievably well. And like a young team, they stumbled and took a couple steps back in the last couple of games looking completely different -- as teams change their strategy to Pitt.
This is the difference between knowing what they are supposed to do to adjust and being able to actually do it. Pitt fans saw this early in the season when they struggled whenever a team went zone defense on them. They looked lost and unable to deal. The adjustment to it took longer than expected, but they finally figured it out.
Now the team is seeing opposing teams switch to blanketing Ashton Gibbs and really extending on the perimeter to slow the guards when Pitt is on offense. This has stagnated Pitt's offense as the team struggles with working the ball inside and executing what they know. On Pitt's defense, you are seeing teams attack off the wings and drive more.
The players show their youth in being slower to adjust to this.
As to the rest, I don't think the overall record is too far from what Pitt fans hoped. The non-con was about right. The Big East record is a shade higher than most expected.
Player development is not surprising on the whole. Most of us thought Dante Taylor would be much better. Travon Woodall has been something of a disappointment. That, however, has been offset by the development of Gibbs, [Nasir] Robinson and [Brad] Wanamaker.
2- In the Seton Hall game, the Panthers looked out of sync. What did Seton Hall do to disrupt the Panthers? Where are the Panthers, as a team, vulnerable?
Disruptive guards. When Pitt lost to Indiana, one of the big factors was that Tom Crean runs a guard-heavy team. He doesn't press, but he has the guards get right in there and poke and play tight defense. If your guards are big, or just as fast it isn't a big deal. Pitt's guards aren't particularly big, and they definitely were not as fast.
Seton Hall does have good guards that can slap and play tight defense when so motivated. [Eugene] Harvey and [Jordan] Theordore did a great job of it. So, in most of the first half, Pitt was not prepared to get harassed and pushed. The guards struggled to move the ball and it led to players not moving as well without the ball as no passes were coming on the play.
If you want to have a good chance at beating Pitt, keep the guards from scoring. Play tight perimeter defense, so the 3s aren't falling and Pitt can't spread the floor as much to move the ball and get it inside.
3- Who are the most influential players on the team? Which players and/ or positions are the weak links? Who is most likely to go off on St. John's?
Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker. When Gibbs gets going the whole offense just opens up. He is the primary 3-point threat and has developed into more than just a spot up guy. When Pitt started the Big East strong, he was hitting shots. In the last 3 games, defenses have keyed on Gibbs and his shooting has gone south. Not so coincidentally, Pitt has lost 2 straight.
As for Wanamaker, while his scoring has gone down, he has become the playmaker for the team. He can drive Pitt fans crazy with some turnovers, but he is also the producing the most assists and he scraps for rebounds like I have not seen from the guard spot on Pitt in years.
The weakness is inside. Gary McGhee, to quote Bill Raftery's description of him is "a very serviceable center." Unfortunately, he probably has to play more than he should. Dante Taylor is still struggling to learn to play inside in the Big East.
At the power forward position, Pitt is undersized. Nasir Robinson is playing well, but he's still undersized and can be out-muscled inside frequently. Gilbert Brown is a wing forward playing at PF as well, so there remains size and skill issues in the frontcourt.
If Pitt's going to win, they need either Gibbs or Wanamaker to have a very efficient game -- not simply scoring a bunch of points. Either or preferably both need to shoot at least 40% overall.
4- Pitt is in an enviable position of bringing a McDonald's All-American off the bench. How is he doing? How does Pitt recruit so much talent to the school?
Dante Taylor is struggling. He is a power forward, but playing a the center spot. Coach Dixon prizes players with versatility and it is almost a ritual that he has the young players learn another position. He had Sam Young play power forward when he wanted to play exclusively at small forward. He has two guys who should or want to play small forward at the power forward spot.
I have trouble arguing with Dixon. One, because he has earned trust on the issue of coaching the team and if he says that Taylor isn't ready to play PF in Pitt's system then that was enough early in the season. Two, right now it is obvious that Taylor is still learning. He has obvious talent but he is unrefined. He gets lost under the glass and is committing the cardinal sin of big men when he gets the ball inside -- he either drops the ball low or even tries to dribble before going to the hoop. Both make it easier to block, strip or foul him before he can finish.
As for the recruiting, it has taken time (and for some Pitt fans too much time). Building on past success in the past decade, the talent recruited has slowly and steadily improved. Most of the players who came in have been moderately good 3-star recruits or guys that slipped in the recruiting rankings and past others.
For what it's worth in coachspeak, Dixon claims that the basis of his recruiting is to find kids who are from successful programs (i.e, want to win), want to improve, and will take the coaching and conditioning to do so.
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?
I've been following Pitt since the late 80s. I still recall the dark days of the 90s, if for no other reason than to remind myself that Pitt -- like all other programs -- has no "entitlement" to winning. That said, the last few years have been a lot of fun when you expect to win almost every game. Sometimes nervewracking and frustrating when things go awry but much more fun.
As for what satisfies for this year. Geez, I'm not sure how to quantify that.
I would say expectations have gone up from finishing in the top-half of the Big East and simply making the NCAA Tournament -- building for next year. Now I'd say the expectations are to finish in the top-5 of the conference and make the Sweet 16.
I think part of what would satisfy is seeing this team finish the season with marked improvement all around and reasons for more optimism in 2010-11.
When? It feels like it is getting closer. Under Dixon, Pitt played in the BET Championship game several times before breaking through to win it two years ago.
Under Dixon, Pitt achieved its first ever #1 ranking in the polls last year
Under Dixon, Pitt made it to the Elite Eight for the first time since the early 70s. It was also the first time Pitt has won 3 games in the NCAA Tournament (less rounds in the 70s and when Pitt made its Final Four appearance back in 1941).
The program keeps making progress. Slowly, steadily building and improving. It almost feels like a sense of inevitability that Pitt will get there under Dixon.
I would say that in the next 3 years it will happen.