January 3, 2007

Matt Glaude of the ever optimistic Orange 44 and I engage in yet another Q&A of Pitt-Syracuse match-ups to start 2007. My responses to his questions are here. And here are his to mine.

I. What expectations did you have with the leaving of Mr. Overrated? the arrival of Freshman sensation Paul Harris, and the team that was still there? How have they changed after the non-con if at all?

My expectations entering this campaign were fairly tempered. Having seen this squad adjust to seismic changes in the past (save 2003), I was fairly concerned with the amount of transition that this team was going to go through.

Gerry McNamara, despite his significant deficiencies, was pretty much played “Mr. Everything” last year and with his departure, I knew that the team was going to feel some growing pains.

As for Paul Harris, I bought into the hype a little bit. With his body build, he had the potential to immediately impact the game on the glass and on the defensive end. What I didn’t know, however, was how poor his shot was. There were indications in the preseason that his offensive game needed significant development (which is probably why I didn’t buy into Harris hook, line, and sinker), but nobody could have convinced me that he would be this one-dimensional offensively.

With respect to the rest of the roster, I really thought that the Orange senior corps would take a drastic leap forward. Toward the end of last season, Terrence Roberts and Mookie Watkins looked like they had enough game to really pace the squad in 2006-2007. Moreover, now-sophomore Eric Devedorf showed flashes of offensive genius last season and a toughness that could define the team’s confidence.

As this season has shown, however, I really missed the boat on Demetris Nichols. He has become an all-around player with an ability to really burn down the nets (save his dunk/layup gaffe against Wichita State). It has been his senior class compatriots, for the most part, the have not taken that step forward that I anticipated.

Like most fans following Big East teams, my expectations have not changed much following the non-conference slate (with notable exceptions illustrated above). Syracuse still has a lot of room to grow and can still make a trip to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond. Boeheim has clearly groomed this team for Big East play; it is simply a question of whether or not the roster is ready to take that step forward.

II. Nichols has been shining the last few games, Devendorf is struggling and Paul Harris is still learning. Basically, what is the deal with this team?

If Jim Boeheim doesn’t have the answer yet, neither do I.

The problem with Devendorf the last couple of weeks has been a combination of sickness and a hometown tragedy where he lost a childhood friend in a shooting. Both distractions occurred back-to-back over the last month and his production has connectedly struggled. He showed flashes of life again against Hofstra, and should be back to his thuggish form soon.

Overall, though, the team is relying too heavily on Nichols to carry the offensive load. With Roberts essentially turning in a no-show and Andy Rautins failing to find his outside shooting form, the team is still looking for two other reliable offensive weapons to run Boeheim’s offense. Until those options surface, this team is going to have troubles with consistency.

Personally, I think that “eureka” moment will come when Josh Wright establishes himself as a stabilizing fixture at the point. Right now, he is still learning where to distribute the basketball and when to penetrate and create contact and easy scoring opportunities. He has all the physical tools to really get the offense cooking, but right now, he still seems tentative on the offensive.

But when you lose Gerry McNamara, that kind of indecision is easy to see happening.

III. As far as Harris, Coach Jim Boeheim spent all summer/fall pumping this kid to every basketball writer who asked — Mike DeCourcy, Andy Katz, Seth Davis, etc. — that he was a big time player. With his inconsistent play (which isn’t really unexpected) , Boeheim has defended Harris at times as blaming the media for expecting too much from him. Um, why hasn’t anyone pointed out the reason for those expectations? What are your expectations regarding him? Will he stick for more than one year?

Honestly, I think writers are genuinely frightened of calling Boeheim on his boasting. Ever since his tirade in the Big East Tournament last year, writers have been very selective about what topics Boeheim should address. As Boeheim has been struggling with Harris’ development as of late, I’m sure that nobody wants to light the torch that sparks the gasoline.

As I noted above, I took a wait-and-see approach with Harris. There are only a handful of freshman that can step in and pull a Carmelo Anthony-like performance. Given the book on Harris’ offensive game coming into the season, I didn’t expect him to have All-World potential like Kevin Durant down at Texas.

With respect to Harris sticking around for more than one year, I think it is in his best interest to do so. He has almost limitless potential, but just doesn’t know how to play the game quite yet. Until he shows flashes of development on the hardwood, I am fairly certain that everyone associated with the hoops program at Syracuse will advise him similarly.

The X-factor, of course, is the fact that he does have a daughter and is not the strongest student in the classroom. If the money begins to drop early and/or academic probation looms, there is a good chance that Harris makes the jump.

IV. How are Syracuse fans adjusting to this new Big East? Not just the size, but the shift in powers at the moment. Syracuse, by virtue of its success and coach get plenty of attention and TV exposure; but the last few years the expectations for who will rule the Big East has stayed in Storrs, Pitt’s gotten the attention, Villanova and this year it’s Syracuse behind Pitt, UConn, Marquette, G-town and possibly ‘Nova pre-season. No one’s putting Syracuse out of the NCAA, but they aren’t talking seriously about them in the Big East race.

The lack of focus on Syracuse really hasn’t discouraged the Orange faithful. Everyone seems to understand that this year is one of transition, and with an awesome class of freshman poised to take residence on The Hill next year, there is a general feeling that this edition of the Orange simply needs to “not fall apart.”

Plus, Syracuse really didn’t carry the league’s banner the last two seasons. And those years led to two tournament championships (and two forgettable first-round NCAA exits). But the former point seems to be sticking in everyone’s mind (although the last isn’t too far behind).

The real point of emphasis, though, is that the Syracuse program is never going to fall too far from national consciousness. The Big East naturally sees these cyclical shifts in power over the years. From St. John’s, to Providence late-80’s/early 90’s performances, to Seton Hall’s efforts under P.J. Carlesimo, to Boston College actually looking like they understood the game of basketball under Al Skinner, the Big East inherently posts new faces in dominant places every few years. It’s just a matter of time before Syracuse assumes its rightful place somewhere among the top three teams in the conference.

Hell, it took Georgetown almost 10 years to figure its way back into Big East relevance. If anyone thought that would happen during the “Hoya Destroya” era, you’d think they were crazy. With that in mind, it’s not the worst thing in the world that Syracuse has had two “down” years with a bright future ahead. The Orange will get back, because if they don’t, we may be witnessing not only the fall of Big East royalty, but the end of one of the most important basketball head coaching tenures in the nation. And I’m not ready to accept that fate quite yet.

More tomorrow and hopefully before gametime.

New Zealand Loves Pitt

Filed under: Basketball,Coaches,Dixon,Internet,Media — Chas @ 5:31 pm

A couple Pitt things on today. Grant Wahl’s mailbag continues to discuss innovation by coaches and Pitt.

Speaking of Beilein, we got a lot of responses to our recent items on innovators in the game. Here are a couple (and thanks for the kind words, guys):

As a coach whose teams often have to compete with smoke and mirrors I really like the concept of discussing the game’s greatest innovators. I especially agree with including Beilein. Another I would add to the list is Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon. No team is better at attacking zone. Check out some tapes of their games with Syracuse if you want proof. I show a clip tape of the Panthers playing against zone to my team each year. They have been so effective that Boeheim almost immediately abandoned the 2-3 in the Big East final last year. Thanks for your dedication to the intricacies of the game.
— Zico Coronel, New Plymouth, New Zealand

Mr. Coronel is an assistant coach with the Waikato Pistons (PDF), who finished just out of last place in the NBL.

Interesting point, though I wouldn’t go so far as to label Dixon’s dealing with the 2-3 zone an innovation. Dixon does very well at attacking it, and it ties in nicely to what I wrote earlier today about Pitt and Syracuse in recent years.

Then there’s Seth Davis giving his BUY and SELL lists heading into the conference slates. Pitt earns a buy with a bit of a backhand smack.

I liked Pittsburgh a lot at the start of the year, but this rating is more a reflection on the relative weakness of the Big East than on what the Panthers have shown thus far. They lost their only two tough road tests, including getting embarrassed at Wisconsin, and despite their reputation for playing suffocating defense they are only creating 5.1 steals per game. Still, Aaron Gray‘s size and poise will serve this team well in a conference where toughness in the paint is a must. I also like the offensive dimension East Carolina transfer Mike Cook has added to this team.

No surprise, then that Syracuse and UConn got sells.

That steals stat is a joke, in that it is not the way Pitt plays defense even when it is at high intensity. They don’t force turnovers and steals. They count on making teams work hard to get shots — limiting possessions and — and when they do shoot, not good shots. That said, I don’t necessarily disagree with the comment about the defense, just the stat he cites.

4-0, One More to Go

Filed under: Big East,Bowls,Conference,Football — Dennis @ 3:35 pm

After last night’s Orange Bowl win for the Louisville Cards, the Big East bowl record this year moved to 4-0. They joined “West Effin Virginia”, South Florida, and Rutgers in the W column for our home conference and our winning percentage of 1.00 is better than any of the BCS conferences.

Wait, wasn’t this the conference that shouldn’t deserve a BCS spot? The one that the “experts” up in Bristol said might be worse off than smaller conferences like the Mountain West, MAC, and WAC?

The final step towards a great season for the Beast of the East is a win on Saturday in Toronto of all places. Cincinnati (who we were lucky to catch early in the season or else that would have been another loss) takes on Western Michigan. One more win would have probably put Pitt in this game and if the Panthers had, in fact, made it to the International Bowl I’d be nervous. I’d be shaking in my blogger boots.

I’m actually just as nervous with the Bearcats playing in this game but I have more confidence in them than I would have had in Pitt. A 5-0 bowl season would shut up Corso and Co. and although it doesn’t propel us up to the same status the SEC is at right now, it certainly throws a little more respect our way.

More respect leads to more bowl bids which greatly helps mediocre teams like Pitt. A 6-6 Big Ten team right now has a much higher chance to get into a bowl game than a 6-6 Big East team; at least for the time being.

By the way, this name tag I’m wearing says my name is Dennis and I’m a 4 star employee who is happy to help. You’ll soon find out my main hobbies are the use of parentheses (seen here), double parentheses (a.k.a. the use of brackets [seen here]), and Pitt sports. My e-mail address is Feel free to send love mail, hate mail, spam offers for free stuff, and anything in between. Anything not directly for me can be sent to the regular Pitt Blather e-mail address as usual.

Ah, the season opener up in Syracuse. The game on ESPN, at 7 pm tomorrow and game notes (PDF).

Hyped Freshman Paul Harris is the star power for the Orange, but he has been inconsistent. Having some games where he puts up 20, and others where it is a struggle. Not uncommon for a freshman who is playing a lot of minutes, but not totally what anyone was expecting.

Boeheim said Harris expressed his self-displeasure after putting up 11 points and six rebounds in Syracuse’s 64-61 loss to Oklahoma State at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 5.

“Paul said he played terrible in the Garden and he had 11 or 12 points and six or seven rebounds,” Boeheim said. “It’s good to think that way, (but) he’s a freshman (and) people are putting too much on this kid. He’s putting too much on himself. I just told him, ‘You’re a good player if you do the things you can do. You concentrate on your rebounding, your defense, your ball-handling and your passing.’ ”

In Syracuse’s most recent game against St. Bonaventure on Saturday, Harris registered his third double-double of the season with 11 points and 10 rebounds. After the game, Boeheim said Harris is “doing more than 95 percent of all the freshmen in the country.”

And while his statistics may not approach Carmelo Anthony’s 22.2 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, Harris’ numbers compare favorably with the country’s top-rated freshmen. Of’s top 20 players in the Class of 2006, Harris is the fourth-leading rebounder behind only Texas’ Kevin Durant and Damion James and Ohio State’s Greg Oden.

Harris, who was’s 10th-ranked player in the Class of 2006, is 12th among the top 20 recruits in scoring and he’s 10th in minutes played.

Of course Boeheim put those expectations on Harris. All summer and into the fall, when I started reading previews and off-season pieces; if the topic turned to the ‘Cuse, Jim Boeheim was pushing Harris as this tremendous player. Top national college b-ball writers such as Mike DeCourcy, Andy Katz and Seth Davis all mentioned him (and Boeheim’s excitement over him). So Boeheim has to accept some of the blame for the expectations.

That said, Harris is a big talent and is a 6’5″ guard who likes to go inside. His size and speed will likely be a big problem for Pitt guards on defense.

Then there’s the fact that small forward Demetris Nichols has been breaking out this year.

Nichols enters the Big East regular season leading the conference in scoring with 19.8 points a game, a far cry from his 3.9-point scoring average two years ago as a sophomore. He’s shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 48.8 percent from 3-point range (third best in the league).

“It’s just hard work,” he said. “I don’t know what you guys are looking for. I feel like when you work like I work, it’ll pay off. And it’s paying off. My confidence got bigger and got higher, but it all comes with hard work.”

Nichols, who was Syracuse’s leading returning scorer this year, was snubbed by the conference coaches in October. Terrence Roberts made the preseason all-league first team. Devendorf made the honorable mention list.

Nichols was not even in the conversation – a slight he admitted he has used as motivation.

When he would have a bad game before, it would corrupt the next few games before he could escape the funk. He admitted that was part of his struggle in the latter half of last year’s Big East season.

By the time league opponents saw him the second time around, they knew his tendencies. They would face-guard him and push him around. He couldn’t respond.

Nichols said he’s learned from that and has diversified his offense this year. He has posted up smaller players, which he had not done in years past. And now he’s able to use the dribble to get himself better jump shots.

As noted by John Grupp today, forwards have been having their way with Pitt this year — win or lose. It’s hard not to imagine more of the same.

Nichols is one of the hottest players in the nation, with six consecutive games of at least 20 points. The 6-foot-8, 212-pound senior forward has ridden the hot streak to the top of the Big East scoring, at 19.8 points per game.

“His range is unlimited,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “He takes tough shots, and he makes them. He can shoot over people. He has a great release. … He’s got the ability to score that’s similar to Tucker, but he’s not as inside-oriented as Tucker.”

Nichols is a nightmare match-up. He is big enough to post up a small forward, but also is one of the best 3-point shooters in the Big East (48.8 percent). He has shot 47 free throws this season and missed five. He ranks eighth in the Big East in blocked shots, and scored 31 against Drexel and 28 against Colgate and Baylor during the Orange’s home-heavy nonconference schedule.

Nichols, who scored a team-high 15 points in Syracuse’s 65-61 victory over Pitt in last year’s Big East championship game, starts at small forward. Drawing the assignment to cover him will be mainly Mike Cook or Sam Young. Levon Kendall and Tyrell Biggs will also get their chance.

“Every guy will probably have an opportunity at some time to be on him,” Dixon said. “It won’t be just one guy guarding him. They all understand that.”

Well, um, aside from that game at MSG last March, Pitt has had a good deal of success against the Orange in recent years — more than at any other time. Pitt has been able to deal with the 2-3 zone better than most. It’s time to see if that has changed.

“This is a different 2-3 zone than we played in our last game,” Dixon said. “They don’t pack it in nearly as much. They are going to be more aggressive out on the perimeter which means you have to try and get the ball more on the inside. You also have to get some offensive rebounds. We still have to knock down 3s, though, because any zone is successful if you don’t make open 3s.”

Pitt is shooting 50.4 percent from the floor and 39 percent from 3-point range. A big reason the Panthers shoot so well is they rarely take bad shots. But the Panthers must be even more patient against the Orange because they won’t provide as many openings as Florida A&M.

Pitt point guard Levance Fields acknowledged as much yesterday and said that he believes Syracuse’s zone is one of the toughest defenses the Panthers will face.

“Syracuse’s zone will be much more aggressive,” Fields said. “We’ve got to be ready for that. The guards will extend out more and get into the passing lanes so we have to use a lot of ball fakes and penetrate into the zone. There are going to be some open shots and we have to knock them down but they aren’t going to come as easy as they did against Florida A&M.

“[Syracuse] is long and athletic, they jump up and try to block everything so we are definitely going to have to penetrate, look to kick, then knock down the open shots to be successful.”

And get the ball to Aaron Gray against Syracuse. Daryl Watkins may get some blocks, but Pitt has had its best success against the 2-3 zone and ‘Cuse by getting it inside where Syracuse is weak. Terrance Roberts is likely to be back, but his knees are hurting. Watkins has struggled against Gray and his back-up Josh Wright is even worse.

You know, I know Andy Katz is a big fan and supporter of Jamie Dixon, but I think he doesn’t really gets this one (Insider Subs.).

Jamie Dixon continues to amaze me.

He has gone through so much in the past year, it’s hard to even fathom. Yet every day can bring a new way in which Dixon can show his strength.

First, it was the way he guided his family through losing his beloved sister and friend, Maggie, to a heart ailment, less than a week after the Final Four and a few short weeks after she guided Army to its first ever women’s basketball NCAA Tournament berth.

He proved to be a tireless worker in getting the Maggie Dixon Classic off the ground, where Dixon’s team and Army’s women’s team opened their seasons, and he continues to work on a number of ways to keep her memory alive.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Dixon spent Thursday night in the hospital room of Duquesne coach Ron Everhart, who was battling a nasty case of diverticulitis, a painful condition of bulging pouches in the digestive tract.

So we’re talking an infection in the digestive tract that usually hits guys over the age of 60 — Everhart’s not quite 45. So Dixon comes and spends over 2 hours in his hospital room at the same time the Dukes are playing (and upset) Boston College.

I mean, talk about the big distraction. You’re on the phone with your staff, trying to coach by phone while watching on a computer and you have to entertain a guest? All the while, dealing with something that includes diarrhea, frequent pissing, pain while pissing and rectal bleeding.

Well, clearly Coach Dixon is trying to make Everhart’s first year in Pittsburgh as painful as possible.

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