Only one more day until the high noon showdown between the St. John's Red Storm and the Pittsburgh Panthers. The Red Storm are riding a wave of good wins and are looking like a dangerous team - and not in the "they might make a top-10 team work for their win" sort of way.
The team and the fans have some high hopes. But the Panthers are at the top of the Big East table, looking down at the serfs of the league, grubbing for third through eleventh place. It's a mess down there. A win against Pittsburgh could solidify St. John's position as a team to beat, give the team more confidence heading into - barring a spectacular collapse - the NCAA Tournament.
So before each game, we do 5 questions with writers for the opposing team. Yesterday, we got some responses from Pitt Blather; for the second installment, we hollered at Cardiac Hill here on SB Nation for more answers. He also mans the SB Nation Pittsburgh hub - my man is busy over there, but putting out quality stuff.
Find out more about how Notre Dame beat Pitt, whether the Panthers are a Final Four team, key players, Ashton Gibbs, and the Panthers' comfort in Madison Square Garden, below the fold.
1. So, Pittsburgh is good. Really good. They've lost one game to Notre Dame and to Tennessee. What did those teams do to stifle the Panthers? (And is Notre Dame Pitt's Kryptonite?)
Notre Dame, as evidenced by the score, forced Pitt into a slow, grind-it-out type of game. It's not that Pitt can't win those games, but guard Ben Hansbrough continually broke down Pitt's defense getting to the basket almost at will. Frankly, it's something that should worry Panther fans a bit. While they play great team defense, Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker are hardly lockdown defenders in the backcourt. I could see Pitt having issues in the NCAAs if they match up against athletic guards. I don't know if Notre Dame is Pitt's kryptonite, but I'm sure fans would rather see them play nearly anyone before them in the tournament.
Lots of Pitt fans like to talk about the mystery that was the Tennessee game, but it wasn't really a mystery at all - they just ran into a team that shot lights out. The Vols shot over 56% from the field and 63% from three-point range. When a team shoots like that, they'll beat nearly anyone. And Scotty Hopson looked incredible in that game. I was literally about 5-6 rows from the court, so I had a pretty good view. One of the best performances I've ever seen in person against Pitt.
2. Yes, Pitt is really good. But I've been wondering recently if the Panthers have the goods to get to the Final Four (Finally, if you will). Pitt does a lot of things well, but is only elite at offensive rebounding (according to the Pomeroy/ tempo-neutral stats). Will this Pitt team go far in the Tournament?
Does Pitt have the players to get to the Final Four this year? Yes. But that may be due to the fact that there aren't truly great teams this year. Ohio State, Kansas, and Duke don't have great resumes and while Texas' is pretty good, they don't have a better one at Pitt to this point - especially since they lost the head-to-head matchup. The tournament is wide open this year and I could see a No. 3 or even a 4 seed winning the whole thing. Right now, you've got the big five (Pitt, Ohio State, Duke, Kansas, and Texas) and then you've got teams like BYU, San Diego State, and Notre Dame. But after that, you've got a bunch of teams right there. Could you make a case for teams like UConn and Villanova who would probably be in that 3-4 seed category right now? Of course you could.
So even though this Pitt team isn't as good (in my opinion) as the Elite Eight and near Final Four team two years ago, they probably have just as good of a shot at getting there this year. This team is also deep and one of the things I really like about it is that there are plenty of guys who can step up at any given time. I wrote an article a little while ago that mentioned that seven different players have led the team in scoring at any given time this season in individual games. That's pretty incredible. A few of those guys like J.J. Moore and Talib Zanna have tailed off and seen fewer minutes in Big East play, but Pitt's balance is a big reason they're having the year that they are.
Anything can happen in a one-game scenario and while Pomeroy's stats may suggest they only do one thing great, they do a lot of things extremely well. They're #1 in rebounding margin, #5 in assists, #4 in assist/turnover ratio and they're in the top 30 in a bunch of categories like scoring offense, scoring defense, field-goal percentage, field-goal percentage defensively, three-point percentage, and turnovers. When broken down simply: Good offens + good defense = Lots of wins.
3. Which players are key to the defense? Which players power the offense? What do they do well, what are their weaknesses?
Defensively, the team's best player is probably center Gary McGhee. He's smart (has only fouled out once or twice in his career, which, for an aggressive center, should tell you quite a bit), but not passive to the point of giving up easy baskets. He keeps opposing players in front of him and really doesn't give up a lot of easy baskets.
Over the past few games, I think we've all come to realize how important Ashton Gibbs is to the offense. Pitt was averaging about 74 points per game in the Big East before Gibbs' absence, but since he's been gone, the team's averaged 65 - nine points less per game. The offense just doesn't have the same type of flow that it does when he's there. Gibbs is one of the best three-point shooters in the country and really attracts a lot of attention from defenders. That, I think, really opens up the offense.
4. Ashton Gibbs: will he be 100% on Saturday?
I'm guessing so and I would hope if he's not that they would sit him. He said a few days ago via the ever-popular Twitter that he felt good. And his mom, in a quote that I saw a while back, said that he could have played in the Villanova game if he had to. The original timetable was 10-14 days and Saturday's game will be exactly 14 days, so I think he'll be at 100% or close to it. Whether he plays his usual allotment of minutes, I don't know. Maybe Jamie Dixon works him in a bit slowly, but all indications are that he should be ready to go.
5. Does Madison Square Garden feel like a second home court for Pittsburgh? Haven't they had some success at MSG in recent years?
I think if you asked the players, they probably would say it does feel like home. If you told the team they needed to play one game on a neutral court outside of Pennsylvania to win a National Championship, I'm guessing that would be the pick.
Over the years, Pitt has always had players in or near the area and this year's no exception - Dante Taylor, Travon Woodall, Isaiah Epps, J.J. Moore, and Ashton Gibbs are all from NY/NJ. So there are always lots of Pitt fans at The Garden. And yes, the team's been successful there, stringing off lots of deep Big East tournament runs. They also played Duke there a few years back and this year, of course, they won the 2K Sports Classic, beating Texas and Maryland. And on top of that, there are the games they play against St. John's.
I think it's safe to say they're pretty comfortable there.