A return opponent means a return of a question exchange.
Like the exchange almost a month to the day ago, Lee from Eye of a Panther has returned for a quartet of hard-hittin' questions on the Pittsburgh Panthers prior to Saturday’s afternoon matchup in Madison Square Garden to find what has changed since the January 26 meeting at the Petersen Center in Pittsburgh.
1- Currently, who's been improving for Pittsburgh? Has anyone regressed?
Funny you mention that. There's been quite a bit of talk these days about Pitt's center, Gary McGhee, as a potential candidate for the Big East Most Improved Player award. While I think he's improved, the talk has gotten a bit crazy as of late and (insert shameless website plug here) I actually wrote a post with a bunch of stats a few days back about some of this.
Anyway, he has definitely improved and has been playing better since the last game against St. John's. In the past eight games, he's gotten to double digits in rebounds in half of them and he's been more of a force. Pitt will really be counting on him to rebound well as they really were beaten up on the boards in the first game.
Pitt's backup point guard Travon Woodall has also been improving, and that in turn, has helped Ashton Gibbs break out of a bit of a funk. Woodall had averaged about 2.3 turnovers per game going into the first game against St. John's. Since then, he's averaged only .7 per game. He's not a huge contributing scorer, but his ability to play mistake-free ball has really helped take some of the load off of Gibbs. And when they're both in the game, Gibbs can focus on getting open for shots rather than trying to get the ball upcourt and set up the offense.
I don't think anyone's regressed significantly, but Pitt's McDonald's All-American freshman, Dante Taylor, has been less of a factor. He had shown some glimpses and been serviceable at times early in the season, but over the past ten games, he's really seen a reduced role. He was regularly getting double digit minutes up until then. Since then, he's only seen double digits in four games, has gone scoreless in five of them (only scoring more than two points once), and has only averaged 1.5 rebounds per game. I think it's mostly due to a reduced role, but he certainly looks to have regressed at least a little.
2- What's the key to beating Pitt these days?
There are lots of ways Pitt can lose, but if I had to single out one thing (other than lights-out shooting, which did Pitt in against Notre Dame), the easiest way is to beat them on the glass. In Pitt's seven losses, they're -16 (-2.29 per game) in rebounding. That might not sound like a ton, but when you factor in how important rebounding is to Pitt, it's actually yquite a bit. Contrast that with Pitt's +123 over their 19 wins (average of 6.33 per game) and you see just how important it truly is. Pitt thrives on limiting teams to one shot and grabbing offensive rebounds. When they can't do that, it becomes more difficult for them to win. I know what you're thinking - St. John's beat Pitt by ten on the boards in the first meeting and still lost. Fortunately for Pitt, their other main staple, defense, came through.
Pitt has only lost the rebounding battle three times in their 21 wins. In each game other than the triple overtime game against WVU, Pitt held the opposing team to no more than 55 points. And even in that WVU game, rebounding was what won the game as they out rebounded the Mountaineers 15-7 in the three OT periods.
3 - How do they fare on the road? And what worries you about playing St. John's again?
Pitt is a respectable 5-4 on the road. At times, they've been great beating Syracuse, UCONN, Marquette, and Cincy all on the road. They've also struggled and lost games to South Florida, Seton Hall, and Notre Dame. It seems like they lose focus sometimes playing on the road like most teams do, and the game against St. John's is certainly no automatic win.
Plenty of things worry me about Saturday's game. Pitt is 1-2 in their last three against St. John's at home for starters. Also, if Pitt is outrebounded like they were in the first game (-10), they could be in trouble. The rebounding was a problem in the last game (though part of that was due to ridiculously hot shooting by Notre Dame) and it could carry over. And even though I believe Pitt is the better team, they've had their share of struggles against teams they probably should have beaten. Lastly, if St. John's can manage to string together three wins to close out their season and win a couple in the Big East Tourney, they would have some very quality wins and could get into the tournament. Yes, it's a pretty big longshot with the Syracuse game on the road, but not impossible. I've got to think the players are still thinking about an outside chance of sneaking in.
4- How far can Pitt go in the tournament?
To me, Pitt can go as far as the Final Four and can go out as early as the first round. In beating three top five teams (Syracuse, West Virginia, and Villanova), they've shown they can play with virtually anyone. But there are too many questions for me to realistically see them getting that far without some major upsets taking place, paving the way quite a bit. They really have no 'go to' guy offensively and key guys like Gilbert Brown and Jermaine Dixon can be too inconsistent. If the team comes out flat or runs into a hot shooting mid major in the first round, they may not have enough offense to keep up if a few of their main guys struggle. I'd like to see them get to a Sweet 16 this year and even though I'm unbearable to live with in the immediate aftermath of a Pitt tournament loss (ask my wife), I think looking back on it, that would make for a pretty good season with so many new guys playing key minutes.