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February 18, 2009

Just not enough time for the reacaps from the Pitt-UConn game from the ‘Burgh. Not much to add from the recaps. Lots of focus on DeJuan Blair and Levance Fields’ clutch 3s.

Ray Fittipaldo had an interesting theory as to why the game was called a bit looser.

I think a few things played into the way the game was called. First off, Pitt played West Virginia in a Big Monday game last week that was marred by four of the five best players on the court being in foul trouble. I don’t think the Big East wanted this marquee nationally televised game to go down the same road. I think the officials did the right thing in letting the players decide the game. Other than the Thabeet fourth foul call they called what was necessary. The other thing about this game was that it ws so physical that it was hard to call every foul. Both teams were going at each other every time down the court.

That ignores, though, that Mike Kitts tends to let more happen. Ed Hightower, the lead official, tends to do a lot of Big 10 and 12 games, so he also calls things a little looser.

Ron Cook continues his man-crush on DeJuan Blair.

I’m here to tell you it was the greatest individual performance in Pitt history.

Until someone can dig deep into the past and tell me otherwise, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Blair’s work came in No. 4 Pitt’s 76-68 win against Connecticut, its first win against a No. 1-ranked opponent in school history. It came on the road in the incredibly noisy XL Center in front of 16,294 passionate Connecticut fans who fully realized first place in the Big East and perhaps a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament were at stake. And it came against 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet, a giant who many consider to be the top player in the college game.

I haven’t seen him this enraptured by a Pitt basketball player since Chevon Troutman’s senior year.

Even curmudgeon emeritus, Bob Smizik deemed Pitt’s performance indicative of a team capable of getting to the Final Four.

Although the game did not move the Panthers into first place in the Big East — UConn has one more win — it elevated them in the more important standings. If the Panthers win at home Saturday against last-place DePaul, they’ll almost certainly move ahead of Connecticut in the rankings, and, of more import, they have the inside track in the Big East for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

This victory left no doubt that Pitt can play with the best and on any given night is as good as any team in the country.

The Final Four is a long way off, but this team can get there.

The Panthers won with a sub-par but ultimately heroic performance from point guard Levance Fields, who was not his normally almost-flawless self. Fields had five assists and four turnovers, well below the 3 to 1 ratio he normally has in that statistic. Worse, he missed his first eight shots.

But when he was needed most, Fields was at his best. He scored all 10 of his points in the final 3:03. His 3-pointer gave Pitt the lead for good at 64-61 with 3:09 remaining. Another 3 with 2:21 left upped Pitt’s lead to six. He added four three throws in the final minute to seal the win.

The Panthers (11-2 in league play) might be able to relax Saturday against DePaul (0-13) but not after that. The following week they are on the road at Providence (8-5) and Seton Hall (5-7) and finish at home against Marquette (10-2) and Uconn (12-2).

But on the basis of what they showed last night, it hard to see this extremely focused team faltering in the regular season.

No shock that this was a highly rated game.

The Pitt-UConn game earned an overnight rating of 2.01, which Big East associate commissioner Tom Odjakjian said was the conference’s best rating in three years

In Pittsburgh, the number was more than five times that.

The Pitt-Connecticut game averaged a 10.28 rating in Pittsburgh, which is the highest-rated game since records were kept beginning with the 2002-03 season, according to ESPN. The previous highest-rated game was a Pitt-West Virginia game Feb. 27, 2006, which averaged a 9.45.

Before the game, the numbers guys at Basketball Prospectus pointed out just how vital DeJuan Blair is to Pitt.

On paper this might be the most balanced offense we’ve seen since Chris Paul was at Wake Forest. Pitt does everything well: twos, threes, taking care of the ball, offensive rebounds–everything.

It is also, however, an inconsistent balanced offense. Moreover the inconsistency can be traced to one primary factor: Blair sitting on the bench with foul trouble, as he did in road losses at Louisville and Villanova. In those two games Pitt scored just 0.87 points per trip. In their ten wins, conversely, the Panthers have been literally unstoppable, recording 1.25 points per possession.

Blair played 38 minutes against UConn.

The performance by Pitt and Blair made them come back to the general subject.

Speaking of unalloyed triumphs, Pitt beat Connecticut 76-68 in Hartford last night. The Panthers won with serial excellence. First it was feathery jumpers from Sam Young. Then, over a period spanning both halves, it was fearless–and effective–attacks on the basket from DeJuan Blair. Then, finally, it was two well-timed threes from Levance Fields. (Though truth be told the second of the two was achingly ill-advised. When you’re 1-of-9 from the field, DeJuan Blair is your teammate, and Hasheem Thabeet has four fouls, you do not shoot a three early in the clock. But it went in. Hoops rewards accuracy over judgment. Dig it.)

There have been other great games this season, and there have been other games between teams that can win the national championship. But this was the first great game between teams that can win the national championship. Wake Forest and North Carolina played a tremendous game in Winston-Salem on January 11, and the Heels and Duke certainly put on a good show for the first half of their game last week. But neither of those games can compare with what we saw last night. It’s too bad Jerome Dyson’s out for the year and Connecticut was down a starter for this one (Carolina, of course, would say join the club), but this game was 40 minutes of sustained and ferocious combat between two of the best four teams in the country. When it was over Pitt, and more particularly Blair, had conquered the UConn, and more particularly Thabeet, challenge.

Then it comes back to Blair. Blair, it seems is the most dominant offensive rebounder in major conference college basketball over the past 5 years. Check out the numbers — he blows the closest guy right out of the water. Amazing.

So, the one thing you can be assured is that if Pitt goes against another big man, Blair gets happier.

In DeJuan Blair’s third game at Pitt, he faced a bruising 7-foot, 260-pounder from Saint Louis University.

Blair overwhelmed Bryce Husak, prompting coach Rick Majerus to say the then-Pitt freshman had “emasculated” his senior center.

It was a taste of things to come.

Since then, Blair has emasculated — or made weak — just about every big man he’s played.

From Roy Hibbert and Luke Harangody to Greg Monroe and Hasheem Thabeet, Blair does his best work against taller, big-time centers who are supposed to have their way with the “undersized” 6-foot-7 Schenley graduate.

In seven career games against those All-Americans or Big East 7-footers, Blair is averaging 16.7 points and 14 rebounds.

Mike DeCourcy — before the Pitt-UConn game — made the case that Pitt hasn’t been an underachiever but an overachiever.

Before Kansas coach Bill Self stood underneath the Alamodome and raised the championship trophy last April, he was widely considered a disappointment as an NCAA Tournament coach.

Self owned a career NCAA Tournament winning percentage of .640 entering the 2008 championship. That’s better than Hall of Famers Jim Boeheim, John Chaney and Lou Carnesecca.

So here’s what elevated Self from failure: a missed free throw by Memphis’ Derrick Rose and a missed 3-pointer by Davidson’s Jason Richards.

That’s how silly this stuff can be sometimes.

Somebody asked the other day if Pitt “needs” to reach the Final Four this season. On one hand, the answer would be yes because the Panthers might need a few years before they again have a chance like this.

But what seemed to be implied was that many fans will consider the Panthers to again have disappointed in the NCAAs if they don’t reach this year’s Final Four. In fact, Pitt rarely has fallen short of its potential in the Howland/Dixon era.

Since the Panthers appeared in the 2002 event, they own a respectable .588 NCAA winning percentage that reflects four tips to the Sweet 16 and a single first-round elimination, in 2005.

In most of their eliminations, the Panthers were defeated by teams with superior, NBA-type talent: Marquette and Dwyane Wade in 2003, Oklahoma State and Joey Graham in 2004, Patrick O’Bryant and Bradley in 2006. Those kinds of players typically win NCAA Tournament games. Until this season, Pitt hasn’t had more of them on its side.

Pitt has been the decade’s ultimate overachiever, consistently contending for Big East championships with players undervalued by other programs and of little use to the NBA. The Panthers should be celebrated for their March accomplishments. Maybe if their opponents miss a few big shots on the way to Detroit, the Panthers will get their due this year.

The year Pitt lost to Bradley in the second round, Bradley had knocked off Self’s Kansas team in the opening round. Still, I have to say that the way the season has ended in the NCAA Tournament the last couple of years, have indeed felt like a disappointment.

Finally, DeCourcy also makes this point on the Pitt-UConn game and Calhoun’s whining.

Check the 3-Pointers
February 18, 2009

It deals a bit with Blair being able to use his strength inside. How he got so close right away, that when he did bump the defender, there was limited space and made it difficult for an official to call a charge or any offensive foul.

I think it’s really funny that DeCourcy is using Patrick O’Bryant and Joey Graham’s pro status as evidence that Pitt’s tournament losses were justified. Almost too funny to respond to, but I can’t resist……

Dwyane Wade, now we’ll buy that one (in fact,I went to that Nawlins Final 4 partly just to see him play)…..but that’s got to be the first time Patrick O’Bryant’s pro career has been cited as justification for anything. Especially considering that Aaron Gray actually plays a bit in the NBA and O’Bryant doesn’t.

And Joey Graham? Definitely an NBA-level athlete (and not much else), but having one superior athlete on the Cowboys meant Pitt was doomed from the start? Flimsy….

Antonio Gates gets paid to catch a ton of passes and Trevor Huffman is an All-Star hooper in Belgium…..why would Mr. DeCourcy fail to cite those two professional athletes and former Kent Staters as additional excuses for Pitt tournament non-performance?

Certainly somebody at Pitt can hire a better apologist than this guy. He’s an amateur.

Comment by hugh green 02.18.09 @ 6:59 pm

[…] the Pirates today before checking in on a recruit in the nearby area]. The Panthers, of course, [just defeated #1 UConn on the road Monday].  I guess Jamie’s not too worried about the DePaul game coming up (the Blue Demons have yet […]

Tony Allen was on that Ok. State team as well Hugh and he plays solid minutes for a contender. Additionally, Pitt came out of nowhere in 2002 to get to the sweet 16. They weren’t exactly a powerhouse at that point.

The Bradley loss was bad and I remember being terribly disappointed that afternoon, but the rest I can live with.

Comment by omar 02.19.09 @ 9:35 am

Forgot about Tony Allen, though if you ask a typical Celtic fan, they’ll tell you they shudder when he gets in.

I’m OK with the general premise that the team with a couple NBA players usually wins, but this was an amusing application of the theory.

Comment by hugh green 02.19.09 @ 9:48 am

Ha ha about the celtic fans. Not saying he is a star, but he plays solid minutes on the defending champs. Where as are best players for that team are either coaching or nowhere to be found. That wasn’t a bad loss, but Bradley was awful. Pitt had a solid shot to get past the sweet 16 that year as well as Kent State. KSU was bad too, but Pitt wasn’t a powerhouse then though.

Comment by omar 02.19.09 @ 11:55 am

Think Pitt was a #3 seed the year they lost to Kent State. Being in the top 12 seeds for the country is up there.

Or how about not getting past the first round when they faced Pacific in 2005? Certainly not a powerhouse year, but it hurt for the program to lose to a team from a conference none of us had even heard of.

I even think Kent State and OSU were very tough teams (even Pacific was pretty decent) — but I still would never try to make the case that Pitt has overachieved. Absolutely nuts…….

Comment by hugh green 02.19.09 @ 3:46 pm

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