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March 22, 2007

Kansas gets barely past SIU with a 61-58 win and now awaits the winner of Pitt-UCLA. One thing is certain, SIU HC Lowery is about to make more money. Either because he will get a nice raise from his alma mater or he will be snatched by another school.

9:53: Here we go.

10:02: Pitt down 8-4, 15:52 in the half. As expected, banging and tight. Mbah a Moute already forced to sit with 2 fouls. The Bruins are now bringing at least 2 guys at Gray with MaM out.

10:08: Good timeout by Graves. That was a good trap, and he didn’t try to do anything stupid.

10:20: Man, Pitt is not hitting shots, still only down 3.

10:35: Not making shots is starting to catch up with Pitt as halftime nears. UCLA is now bringing at least two — even three men — on Gray and daring Pitt to make an open jumper. It’s not happening right now. There won’t be any way for Gray to get chances if the shots aren’t being knocked down.

10:47: Pitt down 32-26. Hate to say it, but that’s good. Pitt shot horribly and only encouraged UCLA to gamble more on defense and make it harder on Pitt.

I think Young will have to play more in the second half, even if Kendall is better on defense. Pitt needs Young’s scoring more at the moment. They need penetrators and anyone else to help take the defense off of Gray. Fields and Ramon are at least taking care of the ball even if they aren’t providing much on offense.

UCLA is shooting better then Pitt and even out-rebounding them. The startling thing is that UCLA is turning the ball over more and fouled more.

Naturally, UCLA is hitting all of their FT shots.

11:12: AUUGGHHH!! How is Pitt making it that much harder by missing some of these shots? I’m trying to remain calm but that’s at least 2 lay-ins to start the second half that Pitt has managed to mangle.

11:25: Grife! I don’t know what to say. Pitt has shots. They are getting looks. They are simply missing them. I had hoped that the shots would start falling, but they still aren’t. Now you can see some of the players getting tighter when they have to shoot. Some players hesitating and others thinking they have to shoot right away. They are frustrated because they know the shots are there.

11:30: 5 points in almost 9 minutes?

11:52: Small run and then that was it. 3:27 UCLA up 54-42.

Nothing. I can’t believe the poor shooting. Pitt’s shooting has somehow managed to be worse in the second half then in the first.

12:09: 64-55 UCLA wins.  Credit UCLA. They did it without getting the turnovers. They shot incredibly well on free throws. They out rebounded Pitt (it helps when Pitt misses that many shots on the defensive rebounds) and converted more open shots.

What can you say? Pitt got nothing inside. Gray only had 10 points and Kendall — while he had 3 assists — had 0 points. Young provided a brief spark with 9 points but on only 3-10 shooting. Cook hit 3-4 to start then was 0-5 the rest of the way.

Right now I’m very disappointed in the way they shot. The defense was sound. Good god, did they get open looks. They just shot like absolute crap.

It’s not just the guys inside. They had no chance to get free when most of the game the perimeter wasn’t doing much to help them loosen double teams.

The games have gotten underway. A couple hours or so until tip. I’m not ready to start the open thread, but here are just a few more stories — quick hitter — to read if you need to pass the time.

Seth Davis at SI.com went with UCLA. I’m not shocked. Look, Pitt hasn’t won in this round. It’s a generally safe bet to go with that trend. Add in that it’s against UCLA, and there is no reason for most pundits to pick Pitt.

The whole getting past the Sweet 16 issue.

UCLA will try to get Aaron Afflalo going early. He’s struggled lately, but isn’t concerned. Mike DeCourcy at the Sporting News, however, is.

Oh, you bet it’s missing. It’s missing almost three-fourths of the time lately. A 39.5 percent 3-point shooter heading into the final weekend of the regular season, he is at 27.6 percent over the past five games. He does not look as confident in his shot, and this has had a devastating effect on the Bruins’ offense. They had a 3-2 record in that stretch, and, perhaps even more foreboding, averaged 59.4 points.

The Bruins’ attack depends on Afflalo being a force. The Bruins are not making it out of California if he struggles in these next two games. Presuming there are two more games. It’ll be hard for UCLA to beat Pittsburgh without a significant Afflalo contribution.

It would be nice to keep him down and struggling.

Some are disappointed with the second year output of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
Washington Post story on Dixon-Howland.

Nebraska (and former Pitt) AD Steve Pederson will be pulling for Pitt and recalls the recruiting of Jamie Dixon to come on as an assistant.

Former Stanford and Golden State Warrior HC Mike Montgomery picks UCLA for the game (shocking, I know).

The question is, can you get it all worked out in four days of preparation? If people don’t have the skills to make those kinds of plays against a defense as intense as UCLA’s, you’re not going to learn it in a week.

Now, I would guess that same game plan is also what Pitt runs. I think the key for UCLA is Collison. He creates off the dribble. If Pitt controls Collison, and Afflalo and Shipp don’t have good games, then UCLA is in trouble. They’re not going to score enough points to win.

But I’m going to pick UCLA because, if nothing else, they might do what they do better. Also, the Bruins are at home, so to speak. Every UCLA alum I know is trying to get tickets.

No kidding. It’s in the state and under 350 miles from LA.

Wow! News

Filed under: Basketball,Coaches,Conference,SEC — Chas @ 4:15 pm

I know, everyone’s trying to get ready for the game.

This has nothing to do with Pitt.
Still this is a stunner.

Former Kentucky HC Tubby Smith has jumped to Minnesota.

That’s going to actually overshadow some of the game stuff tonight on TV.

UPDATE: I don’t think Dixon will even be a serious candidate for this job. This is one of the top-4 basketball schools in the country in terms of prestige, expectations, history, money and tradition.

Dixon lacks any ties to the school and the area.

There are plenty of similarities and differences between UCLA and Pitt. So stories declaring one or the other should be taken lightly. There are basic similarites.

Brandin Knight is Pittsburgh’s video coordinator. When he began splicing the UCLA tapes, he was in his home theater.

“They’d run a play and I’d say, ‘We used to run that,”’ Knight said Wednesday. “And we run the same stuff they do. The play calls are the same, too. The two teams are mirror images. We’re not going to suddenly become this full-court pressing team, and they’re not going to start playing different defenses. It’s just going to come down to who makes shots.”

How few shots will it take?

“Anybody who thinks this is going to be a high-scoring game,” Knight said, “is a fool.”

Yes, the practices, the drills the basics in how the teams run things are similar. The key is the players.

“We have different personnel,” UCLA wing Josh Shipp said. “They emphasize defense just like we do. I can see where people get the similarities from, but it’s different personnel that is used differently.”

Pittsburgh point guard Levance Fields said he often watched UCLA on television and said “you can call out the plays,” but rarely does a Bruins’ possession end with its center scoring on a low-post move.

“We are striving to become a better inside team, but our guards have really dominated our scoring,” Afflalo said. “We are a little different.”

I’d also hesitate to say they are so different simply because of the superficial things of the teams different histories and players.

Both teams are man-to-man defense. Pitt will throw out the zone when it seems necessary, while UCLA just won’t. Because of the strength of the team at the guard position, UCLA will play much tighter on the perimeter and be aggressive at trying to force steals. They don’t do it by employing full-court, but by the quickness of their players and being tight.

If you look at the Pomeroy Scouting Reports for both Pitt and UCLA,  you will see that they are very close in tempo/pace. Pitt has a bit of an edge in the offensive efficiency while UCLA is stronger in defensive efficiency. A lot of the defensive efficiency difference comes from the fact that UCLA creates more turnovers on defense then Pitt.

Bruin Basketball Report has a nice scouting report on the game, and expects a UCLA win. Bruins Nation expects a tough, physical defensive game.

If Pitt is going to win this game, obviously the defense will have to be there. Just as important — probably more so because I have little doubt about the defensive effort — Pitt is going to have to shoot very well. I fully expect Pitt will get forced into more turnovers. Just looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the teams, UCLA will get some more turnovers than Pitt. This is no knock on Pitt, they do well on controlling the ball, but against quick, aggressive guards like UCLA, Pitt does struggle with turnovers. You almost have to expect it.
That means, Pitt needs to be more efficient in scoring opportunities. Pitt will need to have the higher shooting percentage. If both teams struggle with shooting and scoring, the advantage goes to UCLA because of their ability to generate more opportunities off of turnovers.

UCLA’s decided advantage is on the perimeter with Point Guard Darren Collison and Shooting Guard Aaron Afflalo. The pieces focus on only one of them, but the problem is really that they are on the same team. While Pitt and especially Antonio Graves have helped shut down the stud guard on the last two opponents, the key was there was only one guard. In this case, UCLA presents the difficulty of having two stud guards. Either of whom would be a star player for another team. This is the part of the Pitt-UCLA match-up that presents the greatest difficulty.

Allflalo is the leading scorer for the Bruins, but Collison is their speediest player and the point guard that sets things up. It would appear that Graves will be on Afflalo — at least initially.

The Panthers might own the edge in size, but UCLA has a decided edge in quickness. Levance Fields likely will draw the defensive assignment on Collison, because Antonio Graves will be busy will the Bruins’ leading scorer, Arron Afflalo.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Fields said. “But he’s going to lace his sneakers up like I do, so I’m not really worried about it. I’m just going to guard him like I normally guard anybody.”

Fields hasn’t guarded anybody this fast. Collison’s mother, June, competed in the 400 meters at the 1984 Olympics for Guyana. His father, Dennis, competed for Guyana in the Pan American Games in the 200-meter sprint.

Collison prefers the 94-foot sprint — think Tyus Edney — but he’s good in the slow-down game, too.

“The thing with Collison, he has a little height (6 feet) and has those long arms,” Pitt forward Mike Cook said. “So, I mean, he’s fast with an athletic body, probably something we haven’t seen from the point guard spot this year.”

I’m very torn on this.  Collison is listed at 6′ 3″ and Afflalo is at 6′ 5″.

It would be problematic size-wise for Fields or Ramon to have to guard Afflalo too often with the height advantage they’d be given up. Afflalo is fully capable of driving and pulling up. He could be shooting over them all night. Graves would only be giving up a couple inches and could stay with Afflalo rather well.
On the other hand, Collison is great at driving to the basket. He can also dish and get past slower players like Fields and Ramon. Graves is probably the best defender from the perimeter and could keep Collison in front of him on drives. Creating more problems and denying the dribble-drive.

I think Graves is going to be switching up on them throughout the night. He won’t be keyed on just one player. I suspect Dixon will use him on both at various points in the game to hopefully frustrate and keep UCLA from getting too comfortable on offense.

I know, I wanted to believe it when I first read that UCLA wasn’t planning to bring the double on Aaron Gray. There was some logic. Rather than try and keep the ball out of his hands that way, why not just play the guards tight on defense and make it that much harder for the guards to even see the lane to make the pass.

No one believed it, though, least of all Gray.

“I don’t anticipate seeing the ball without having two guys on me,” Gray said. “Especially against UCLA.”

And he’s right to expect it. The Bruins did it against Indiana with D.J. White, and their inside guys have already tipped their hand.

“We’ve been out-sized all year,” Bruins forward Josh Shipp said. “It hasn’t really bothered us too much. We do a lot of double-teaming and rotating. We’re just going to stick to what we do, and hopefully, that works.”

And not just one player saying that.

UCLA’s double teaming of Gray will be different than what UCLA employed against Indiana’s big man D.J. White, who wasn’t double-teamed until he dribbled and turned his shoulder toward the basket.

“(Gray) has to be double-teamed,” UCLA reserve power forward/center Alfred Aboya said.

“He’s big. We will have to double team, and it will be tough to double team him because he’s a great passer.

“We have to be aggressive. We can’t give him any room to dribble, or throw the ball.

“He’s very quick. With D.J. we had to wait. But with him, we have to double as soon as he catches the ball.”

As for Shipp’s comment that being out-sized all year hasn’t really bothered them. Well, not exactly.

Stanford had Brook and Robin Lopez, Washington had Spencer Hawes and Jon Brockman, and going back to last year’s championship game, Florida had Joakim Noah and Al Horford.

Each game resulted in a UCLA loss.

So it makes sense UCLA coach Ben Howland is concerned about Pittsburgh’s twobig guys – senior center Aaron Gray and redshirt senior power forward Levon Kendall – and the anxiety doesn’t abate because Howland recruited both to Pittsburgh.

This game, also expect them to use bodies on Gray just to foul.

Pine guys needed: UCLA backup center Ryan Wright has played nine minutes, committed three fouls, has one rebound and is yet to score a point the NCAA Tournament. Backup power forward James Keefe has played 12 minutes, committed four fouls, has four rebounds and scored two points.

With Pittsburgh’s size and strength and the propensity of Bruins top reserve Alfred Aboya to get into foul trouble, Howland said he expected Wright and Keefe to play a role against the Panthers.

So, yes, the guys inside provide a real match-up problem. The thing to note — Levon Kendall has to have another good game on offense.  Gray has to find him as well as passing back out. Kendall is the guy inside who can help keep UCLA from bringing the double-team too early. If Kendall can finish he forces more of a rotation rather then straight double-teaming. Kendall is also a much better free throw shooter so if he gets the ball and they come late. He gets to the line. And we all know which of the two — Gray or Kendall — that Pitt wants to be shooting free throws.

Crap, I have a lot of tabs in a few browsers with stuff to get through. Time to start digging.

Pitt is trying to put the positive spin on having to go so far away from home.

“We’ll benefit more by not having a whole bunch of Pitt fans, being worried about all the madness of getting tickets for family members and all that stuff,” Pitt junior Keith Benjamin said.

“It’s just us out here.”

Uh, yeah. About that.

The Pitt-UCLA game is a homecoming of sorts for Gray. The Pitt senior center was born in Tarzana, Calif., about 300 miles south of HP Pavilion. Gray, who moved from California when he was 2, was barraged with ticket requests for his family members still living on the West Coast. He estimates at least 30 will be in the stands.

“I have a lot of family out here,” he said.

There’s also Levon Kendall from Vancouver.  It’s just slightly easier for family to come straight down to California then to go to Pittsburgh.

A few months back, Chas posted about the Cinci-Xavier game and who to root for. In the comments, a few people said they think Miller will coach at Pitt someday, to which I said won’t happen. I don’t want to get into that argument again, especially since his name will be in the hat for the gig at Michigan.

Various reports are linking Xavier head coach Sean Miller to the vacant head coaching position at the University of Michigan. Xavier finished this season with a 21-11 record, an A-10 Championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. In two season at Xavier, Miller has a overall record of 38-23. Miller’s strength is his ability to recruit, in fact, Ohio State coach Thad Matta told the Cincinnati Post that Miller “taught me everything I know about recruiting.”

He’s also on the list compiled by Michigan Sports Center.

In all seriousness, Miller would be a great choice. As I hinted, just look at what the last Xavier coach is doing now. Imagine if that type of thing could happen to Michigan. Bring in a new coach from Xavier and quickly become an elite program. The only thing is would he want to come to the Big Ten to coach against a friend in Thad Matta. That could work for or against Michigan.

Other names include John Beilein, Lon Kruger, and Steve Lavin, among many others.

Be excited — under 14 hours to tipoff.

Okay football fixated, here’s the one post you will see today on spring practices and/or anything related to football. After that, expect nothing but basketball. Really not too much.

H.B. Blades gets a nice piece in USA Today. Focused mainly on his relationship with his late Uncle Al Blades.

Blades plays a tenacious style reminiscent of another undersized overachieving linebacker who played under current Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt when he was the Miami Dolphins head coach from 2000 to 2004. Blades is projected as an early second-day prospect similar to the Dolphins’ 1996 fifth-round choice, 5-11, 230 Zach Thomas, a six-time Pro Bowler.

“When you watch Blades on tape, you see a tough, relentless football player,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock says.

“The problem is he’s somewhat limited athletically. When you talk about inside linebackers, there’s a premium on guys who can play all three downs.

“He’ll have an opportunity to be a core special-teams player initially. And that will be his chance to work into linebacker reps as a between-the-tackles thumper because he’s so tough and the game really matters to him.”

Blades apparently ran the 40 at Pitt’s pro-day better than expected so that should help.

I’m starting to think of LaRod Stephens-Howling as the Antonio Graves of the football team. Underrecruited, questionable as to the impact and almost a last-minute throw-in when recruited. Yet, he keeps working harder. Keeps working to be in better shape and becoming an impact player. Looks like another hard, off-season conditioning regimen has him looking stronger then before. And last year he looked stronger and bigger then the year before.

The Panthers had to work out in shorts the first two days, per NCAA regulations, but they get a chance to see how things go when the action heats up at Tuesday afternoon’s practice. Then, they’ll be able to tell how much a vigorous offseason under new strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris has paid off.

“I just pretty much went all out,” Stephens-Howling said. “I figured that since it’s my junior year, it’s time for me to get as big as I can. So, I went all out in the weight room. Buddy’s really on us. He’s really changed the program around, so I think I really changed my mind-set.

“I know I have to work more in the weight room, to get bigger and stronger, so that’s what I’ve been doing. And I feel a lot stronger in my legs, but that’s what I needed, because I came here with little legs and a bigger body. So, I feel more powerful in my legs now.”

Stephens-Howling also noted that his conditioning has improved under Morris’ tutelage. When he returns to the huddle after a long run or pass route, he doesn’t have tired legs. This should keep him healthier during the season as well.

There should be real depth at the running back (whether there will be an O-line to block for them…) and hopefully the coaches will use that depth to wear teams down and keep them off-balance. I’m hoping that with the pro influences, they’ll jump on the present trend in the NFL to look to have more than one back all the time. Still, an issue because Wannstedt seems to treasure the idea of an every down back, even as that traditional approach is on the wane.

Down in Washington, PA there are a couple linebackers being recruited by Pitt and plenty of others.

Trinity junior Andrew Sweat will visit Gainesville, Fla. this weekend when he gets a chance to check out the University of Florida and its national championship football team.

Florida is one of several schools to offer a scholarship to Sweat, an all-state linebacker. Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Syracuse, Connecticut and Pitt are among the others.

Teammate and fellow linebacker Michael Yancich has offers from Connecticut, Duke, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Vanderbilt, Miami (Ohio) and Pitt.

It’s too soon for the major recruiting sites to have evaluation and star rankings up for players. Safe to observe from the offers that Sweat will is definitely the bigger star. Yancich appears to be a decent player with very good grades and SATs.

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