As the game was just about to get underway, they had a cutaway shot to Coach Jamie Dixon along the sideline, and I was ready to panic. He had a look on his face that made me nervous. He looked pale and tight. Like there was something big and painful about to pass through his system. He looked that tense and I was terrified the entire Pitt squad would reflect that. Shows what I know about reading people’s faces.
I’d say the biggest thing that Pitt did right in preparing for the game, was getting Aaron Gray ready to pass out of the double and triple team efforts of the Golden Flashes.
“Carl set the tone with his nine assists,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “That makes us hard to guard when he’s playing like that. It was a great team effort. We had a lot of guys step up.”
Kendall credited the coaching staff for picking up on a Kent State tendency. Kendall said the Panthers knew the Flashes were going to double-team Gray in the post every time he touched the ball no matter what.
Gray found the open man almost every time, and Pitt’s guards didn’t miss many of their outside shots.
“We’d been preparing for that the last couple of days,” Kendall said. “We knew Aaron was going to make the right choices.”
Gray didn’t have any assists out of those pass outs because the ball would quickly move along the perimeter to another player with the better shot. It was exactly what you want to do when they commit that many players to one guy on one side of the court. You don’t wildly throw the ball to the other side. You move it quickly and crisply out and around. Even if you don’t always get the shot, you force the team to expend tons of energy trying to cover everything.
Gray, was probably excessively modest, bordering on arrogant, though with this.
“I don’t think we did anything different in the way we went about our business of preparing for a game,” Gray said. “We put in the hard work that’s needed. We expected to make those shots.”
Pitt probably had one of its most offensively efficient games of the season. I realize it set a team record for team field goal percentage at 67.4%, but the efficiency numbers were as impressive.
Poss 61.1 Pace Moderate O-Rating 129.2 D-Rating 104.7 (Eff. Margin +24.5)
eFG% 73.9 PPWS 1.49
A/TO 1.5 TO Rate 19.6% A/B 58.1%
Floor Pct 60.3% FT Prod 23.9
Poss 64.2 Pace Moderate O-Rating 99.7 D-Rating 123.1 (Eff. Margin -23.4)
eFG% 46.6 PPWS 0.98
A/TO 1.2 TO Rate 15.6% A/B 52.2%
Floor Pct 49.3% FT Prod 15.3
I think something else that points out how well Pitt was shooting. Pitt’s A/B % was only 58.1%, when the team usually averages around 65%. Pitt actually had 18 assists. They just made so many shots that it actually overwhelmed the assists.
The only thing to sort of complain about was that Pitt was outrebounded 29-28. That mainly was because Kent State had a lot more opportunities to grab offensive rebounds than Pitt. Pitt only had 4 offensive boards to Kent’s 10. Pitt did dominate on the defensive boards 24-15. It’s what happens when a team makes more than 2/3 of its shot attempts. If Pitt had missed more shots, there would have been more opportunities to grab offensive boards. I think most of us are comfortable making that trade-off.
Joe Starkey was impressed with what he saw from Pitt.
Pitt created its own energy, not by rubbing sticks together, but by rubbing Kent State’s face in a barrage of early baskets. The Panthers made 14 of their first 18 shots en route to the hottest night in school history.
By the time the smoke cleared, they’d made a school-record 67.4 percent of their field-goal attempts (31 of 46) in a 79-64 victory. That beat the old mark of 66.1 percent, set Feb. 10, 1990, against Providence.
Aaron Gray, who shot just 35 percent in the Big East tournament, made all six of his field-goal attempts and played like the dominant big man Pitt needs him to be. He is three inches taller than anyone on Kent State’s roster, and he made sure everyone was aware of it. He scored 17 points, pulled down 13 rebounds and blocked five shots.
Sophomore guard Ronald Ramon also went 6 for 6, including 2 of 2 from 3-point range. Pitt is infinitely more threatening when Ramon shoots well. He was coming off a 0-for-4 performance in the Big East title game against Syracuse and was 0-for-everything in the postseason in 2005.
Last night, he poured in a team-best 10 points in the first half.
“The aggressiveness was there because it’s the NCAA’s,” Ramon explained. “You want to go out and perform and not let your team down. At the same time, it was within the flow of the game.”
Starkey theorized that Pitt’s shorter bench aided Ramon because he didn’t have to come out as as often and disrupt his rhythm. I’m not sure I buy it.
Keith Benjamin made it to the bench of the Pitt game and apparently had been tested but cleared of spinal meningitis. No word still as to what has been ailing him or whether he will be available on Sunday (I would doubt it).
Pitt probably played one of the most complete games it could play, and somehow, Bob Smizik still manages to seek out the angle most likely to annoy Pitt fans. He complains that Pitt hasn’t focused enough on being a shooting team in its growth from BE bottom feeder to national contender.
This is what happens when a consuming passion for unyielding defense and relentless rebounding converges with excellent shooting. It’s called a blowout.
Defense and rebounding are what built the Pitt program under Ben Howland, and Jamie Dixon made no changes in that formula when he took over in 2003. If anything, Dixon has accentuated the athleticism necessary to play Pitt’s kind of game.
Left behind, too often, is shooting. Howland cherished it when he coached at Northern Arizona but virtually ignored it when he came to Pitt, opting for athletes over shooters. Dixon has done the same. Just two days ago, he dismissed Aaron Gray’s atrocious shooting in the Big East tournament when he said, “We really don’t look at shooting as it is the last thing we look at.”
Such an emphasis has resulted in Pitt becoming an elite program. But it also makes you wonder what might have been in Pitt’s recent NCAA tournament losses, most notably in 2002 when it was upset by Kent State in the round of 16, if the coaching staff had felt a little more comfortable with recruiting an occasional shooter or two.
Yes, one game into the NCAA Tournament, and it is time to complain that the team didn’t recruit enough diverse talent on its rise. I have to believe he does this sort of backhand swipe on purpose.
Now it’s time to contrast Smizik for one of the best national columnists who happens to — for whatever reason — reside in Akron. Terry Pluto talks about the aftermath in the Kent locker room.
Coach Jim Christian was so shaken that when he tried to talk to his team after the game, he couldn’t stand up. His legs were jelly, his throat dry, his eyes wet.
“I could barely speak,” he said. “I tried to get up, then sat back down. I told them how special they were to me.”
Christian paused as he thought about the season, a year in which Kent State finished with a 25-9 record, the second-most victories in school history.
He thought of how his team was picked to finish third in the Mid-American Conference East Division, yet won both the MAC regular season and the league tournament.
“No one expected us to get here except the guys in that room,” he said.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” he said. “All of us were crying. It’s tough to say goodbye.”
There will be no more games for seniors Nate Gerwig, Jay Youngblood, DeAndre Haynes and Kevin Warzynski.
Youngblood tried to explain what his final game at Kent State meant, but no words would come. All he could do was shake his head.
Haynes mentioned being on the court, watching the final seconds of the clock ticking down, knowing his four years were ending. Suddenly, he realized it went so fast.
None of this is about regret. Entering the game, Pittsburgh was the favorite. The Panthers were ranked 16th in the country and finished second in the grinding Big East Tournament.
Pitt had too much size, too much talent.
“It was a pleasure to coach these guys,” Christian said. “They got it. They knew that we had to be at our best to win. We really had to execute. We had to be unselfish.”
An example is how Warzynski gave up his starting spot to sophomore Mike Scott after those first discouraging 11 games. Scott was needed as a starter for his leaping ability and defense.
Warzynski went to the bench, and rather than pout, became a super sub and was named the MAC’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Warzynski totally took over the second half inside from Nate Gerwig who just couldn’t handle Gray and only played 2 minutes in the second half. A sad ending to a gutty kid’s college career. Warzynski was the only one willing and happy to battle Gray for Kent State. Not only was he Kent’s leading scorer, but he got himself tangled up with Gray so that he ended up in a hilarious headlock. Yet he kept coming back for more. He’s exactly the kind of scrapper you want and are proud to have on your team.
But he and KSU was somewhat wrong about it just being Pitt’s shots “going down.” Pitt was making open looks and taking advantage of the overplay on Gray.
For the Kent State senior-laden team, it’s all over.
“Just sitting on the bench and waiting for the seconds to run down, it was tough,” said Haynes, whose eyes had reddened and were puffy by the time he reached the postgame news conference.
“Just knowing this is it for me at Kent State. My career is over.”
That should be something for Pitt players to take note. If they lose, Krauser’s Pitt career comes to its official end. Krauser did take special satisfaction in this.
Pitt guard Carl Krauser recalled watching the postseason loss to Kent State as a redshirt freshman seated in the stands.
“That loss stuck with me all the way up to this day,” he said. “I definitely feel a sense of relief. I dreamed about it last night. It certainly feels good.”
Panthers guard Ronald Ramon could see a sense of relief on Krauser’s face after the game.
“It was personal for him,” Ramon said. “He was here. He experienced it. He didn’t want to feel that way again.”
Krauser even called some of his old teammates before hand.
“I dreamt about the loss to Kent State last night,” he said. “I told some of the guys that on that team ‘We’re going to win this one for y’all,’ and we did. That’s a huge relief.”
For all Pitt fans.