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January 6, 2007

Noon tomorrow, Pitt and USF meet for the first time in conference action. Last year, Pitt missed USF on the unbalanced Big East schedule. This time its ND and Rutgers that misses Pitt.

Now, we all know that Pitt can never take a game against the Bulls for granted in football, but Pitt is O-2 against the Bulls in basketball. Losing in 1975 and in 2001.

The Bulls, as they seem to be every year, come in hurting.

The most recent casualty is sophomore forward Aris Williams, who will miss an undetermined amount of time with a femoral chondral defect in his right knee. He has already missed five games with tendonitis in his left knee.

Senior point guard Chris Capko has missed the last five games with an ankle injury and he isn’t expected to return anytime soon.

Redshirts Chris Howard and Zaronn Cann, who are both recovering from ACL surgery, have yet to see action for USF in 2006-07. Howard hopes to make his Bull debut next week, while Cann’s return remains unsure.

The Bulls lost freshman Dante Curry during the preseason because of an achilles injury suffered in conditioning.

Pitt is 1-1 this year against undermanned teams. Game notes for Pitt and USF (PDF).

ESPN is doing its free week of Full Court — both on TV and online. So if you don’t live in a place that is showing the game, you can catch it for free anywhere.

Pitt got a nice verbal today. Tony Tucker out of Washington D.C. gave a verbal to Pitt. Interestingly — as pointed out by Dokish — Tucker came from the high school where Pitt Basketball’s Director of Basketball Operations used to be an assistant principal. It probably didn’t hurt, but it didn’t help as much as when GT stopped recruiting him.

This is a solid 4-star verbal for Pitt by both Rivals.com and Scout.com. Scout.com has him as the #24 DE. Rivals.com includes him in their top-250, the #3 recruit out of D.C. and #11 at weakside DE.

ESPN.com/Scouts, Inc. also likes Tucker (Insider subs). They rank him as the #34 DE and say this about him.

Ideally, his best fit in college is on the defensive side of the ball. You would like to think he is going to continue to grow and will be able to play defensive end. If not, he may need to switch to outside linebacker. Playing out of a three-point stance, he has a good get off. He can get after the quarterback and displays some of the tools to be an effective pass rusher. He has enough burst to get upfield and get to the corner. He can make a tackle work. However, he also shows a command of how to use his body by working a quick swim or using his hands to knock blockers’ arms down. He also shows he can get to the shoulder of blockers and use the rip to work his way around the corner. He is also good enough on his feet to get tackles opened up and then take an inside charge. He takes a tight path to the quarterback. He is also a solid defender against the run.

[Emphasis added.]

Okay, I’m sold.

It’s worth noting that Kyle Hubbard, a TE commit out of Lakewood, OH has recently been downgraded to “soft verbal” according to Scout.com. Apparently Butch Davis and UNC have been coming hard after him. He appears to be going down for a visit next weekend.

And, not that I’m feeling too defensive, but I think based on the comments, I need to clarify a little regarding my post on the verbal from Maurice Williams.

I’m not upset or objecting to the recruitment of Williams. I’m quite happy he gave Pitt the verbal. I just have questions about how well he will fit what Pitt wants under Coach Dave Wannstedt.  Pitt wants speed at all positions, but wants the players in traditional rolls. Especially on the offensive side of the ball. The QB drops back, the fullback blocks and is in there for short yardage, the RB is the horse, the TE blocks first… You get the picture.

If you put the system ahead of the talent, you have to recruit the players that fit your system first. The best example might be QB Pat White for WVU. WVU got him out of Alabama because everyone else recruiting him wanted to move him. WVU gave him the promise to play QB and even they didn’t realize how well he fit the option style they run until injuries last year. Given the decisions he has to make in the offense: run, pitch or throw each time; he has the smarts to play the position. His arm was the question, but the WVU offense works for his arm strength.

I was reflecting on Wannstedt’s own words about player evaluations. It cuts both ways. That was really what I was trying to point out. If Pitt and Wannstedt want to get the best players out there. The ones that will help Pitt win, then the team has to have a better idea of how and where it wants to use the players. And be decisive about it.

Big East Improves To 5-0

Filed under: Big East,Conference — Dennis @ 3:49 pm

Cincinnati defeated Western Michigan earlier in the International Bowl up in Toronto moving the Big East’s bowl record to 5-0. Thank god Pitt didn’t get picked to play in this game or else we’d have blown it for the entire conference. Even going undefeated, the TV personalities (who like to call themselves experts) will still hold out on giving respect to this conference. No one is asking them to put us about the SEC or Big Ten (yet) but we are deserving of a BCS spot and I think we’ve shown that the last two years.

It’s still forward progress which looks like it will only keep building with the BE’s “lesser” teams such as UConn and South Florida making giant strides towards the top of the conference.

In some conference basketball news, tonight at 9 pm #14 Connecticut will travel to #19 LSU. We’ll see if UConn is a serious threat or not. They haven’t looked too great after losing to WVU in their only real challenge.

Before I hit on the stories a few other thoughts from the game.

It is very clear to me, that teams preparing for Pitt are going in with the plan of keeping Gray as far from the basket as possible when he’s on defense. Did you see how far Daryl Watkins was playing outside during the game? That is not his style. It’s been something I’ve been seeing since the Wisconsin game. Teams are doing it to keep Gray from getting good position for rebounds and to try and wear him down since it forces him to move and cover a lot more ground on defense.

Gray had 9 rebounds. Cook, Kendall, Young and Biggs had 10. The forwards have been doing a terrible job on helping on rebounds. I saw way too many possessions where Gray was the only Pitt player around the basket — on either end. It’s very hard to get defensive rebounds when no one is helping to box out. Likewise on offense, there’s no help for Gray and he’s stuck fighting off at least 2 other players for the ball.

As for the lack of touches on Gray. Obviously part of that is the fact that teams are doing everything they can to keep him from getting position down low for the easy basket, but there is something else. I think this is the one area where Pitt really misses Krauser. I know many aren’t missing a lot of the other stuff, but one of the best parts of his game as a point guard was how well he could get the ball inside. Troutman, Taft and even Lett all benefited greatly from being able to go inside and Krauser getting them the ball.

This is still a work-in-progress thing for Fields who is improving — especially as he starts penetrating more forcing the defender to play off of him a bit more. Still, it’s an area where Pitt needs improvement.

Gray for his part has to do a better job of fighting off the defenders. He is too passive in trying to establish position and is too willing to give ground. Forcing him to reset, move around and try again. His passivity is also apparent on defense where he was too willing to give ground to a player attacking the basket. Apparently afraid to get called for fouling. When he gets pulled out on defense, he has to make a decision. There was one play where he ended up in the middle two feet from the foul line and Devendorf with the ball about a foot further back. He let himself get trapped there not sure if he should step out to block Devendorf or go in to prevent an inside pass and/or be ready for the rebound. It allowed Devendorf time to just line up his shot and hit the basket.

I do love the aggressiveness from Fields and taking it inside. I think this is especially vital for him with his 3-point and mid-range shootings. With the way he cocks the ball from over his head, he needs a bit of time to essentially “wind-up” for his perimeter shot. If he doesn’t show some drives, it doesn’t create space from the defender to have time to shoot.

Okay, on to the stories. Everyone’s probably read the local recaps and lauding (deservedly) Fields’ performance. Though, the play everyone on Pitt really was happy with was Graves burying the 3 after Syracuse made another run, appeared to get Graves trapped and forced the timeout. It was the play that Syracuse remembers too.

The biggest shotof the game came with a little less than six minutes left in the game.

Syracuse had erased an 11-point second-half deficit to close the gap to 60-58. Pitt had the ball out of bounds with just five seconds left on the 35-second shot-clock. After a timeout, the Panthers inbounded the ball directly to Graves, who buried a 3-pointer from the corner for a 63-58 lead.

“We were too tight,” Boeheim said. “We were worried about the interior pass.”

Syracuse would get no closer than four points after Graves’ shot.

“That was a big shot,” SU freshman Paul Harris said. “That kind of was a dagger.”

“It was huge,” Gray said of the shot. “They actually did a great job defending it. Nichols was right in his face, but he knocked it down. It was a just huge lift at an important time.”

Graves also got lots of credit for helping contain Demetris Nichols.

Pitt used several players on Nichols, but the one who spent the most time on him was 6-foot-3 senior Antonio Graves.

“We made sure we had good quickness on him,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “He’s a great player, similar to a lot of guys at Syracuse. They just get better year after year. He’s now become an NBA-type player.”

That may be a bit of hyperbole, but his game looks so much better than last year — as has been often mentioned.

Ron Cook even gave Pitt plenty of credit. Coach Dixon — and sometimes its hard to know what is spin and what is truth — somewhat defended Gray not getting the ball much and only scoring 9 points.

Gray attempted one shot in the first 13 minutes, and at one point in the first half, eight different Panthers had scored — and Gray wasn’t one of them. But Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said he was pleased with Gray’s play against a 2-3 Syracuse zone. “We talked about that he wasn’t going to get a lot of touches, but he had to occupy the defense,” Dixon said. “He did a very good job of that.”

Syracuse spin is that Daryl “Mookie” Watkins neutralized Gray. Watkins got his props, but the concession was that Pitt was okay with that.

Still, Gray was the catalyst for an offense that beat Syracuse with its 3-point shooting. Instead of attacking Watkins on the baseline, the senior center drew the attention of multiple defenders in SU’s 2-3 zone. When the defense collapsed on him, he used his height to pass over the zone and find open shooters.

“The zone is really targeting a big man, packing it down,” Gray said. “My job is to keep the guys up and try to draw as much attention as possible. We were getting a lot of great looks on the perimeter, and our guards did a great job of knocking down shots.”

He finished with just one assist, but his passing started the good ball movement that freed the guards for open 3-pointers.

Terence Roberts doesn’t think that Kendall’s elbow to his mouth was intentional. There’s a bit of concern in Syracuse over this team, as they have to play Big East games — on the road, even.

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