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November 23, 2011

Still Plenty of Work Ahead

Filed under: Basketball — Chas @ 11:37 am

No one is going to claim that Pitt has fixed things. There’s still a lot that Pitt needs to do to really be a top-15 team this year. There was good and bad in this game. It was a win. Pitt seemed close to busting it open a couple times and then LaSalle came right back and made it scary.

Just as we don’t know everything about Pitt yet, we don’t know how good or LaSalle really will be. They scared the daylights out of Villanova last week. They beat James Madison. They would appear to be better than they have been in a while, but how good? Probably not as good as they looked at Pitt.

In the fourth game of the season, we are starting to see some signs of a rotation being formed. Birch’s minutes went up. Zanna’s somewhat-inexplicably stayed consistent in minutes. Moore is getting a little more time. Cam Wright may be playing himself to a permanent seat on the bench.

The Good Stuff:

Pitt won despite a bad shooting night from Ashton Gibbs. 14 points for Gibbs, but 3-15 shooting. He was flat missing shots. Silver lining was that 7 points came on free throws, so Gibbs was being a little more aggressive and getting contact.

Khem Birch started to show why he has so many excited. Only 13 minutes (but it seemed like a bit more), yet he pulled down 6 rebounds (4 offensive) and had 3 blocks. Still struggling with defensive positioning and footwork (he picked up 3 fouls as well), but does make up for quite a bit of it with his athleticism.

Travon Woodall with a double-double. 12 points and 10 assists. He also had a huge block in the final minute when Pitt nearly let the lead slip away. Efficient shooting continues.

Ball movement and sharing. Pitt had 20 assists on 26 baskets.

Getting the ball inside. Pitt took a lot fewer 3s — in no small part because LaSalle was guarding tighter outside, but the frontcourt got 20 FG attempts. The frontcourt also had 9 turnovers, so there could have been more opportunities.

Nasir Robinson’s consistency. 17 points on 8-10 shooting. He constantly slips inside past the defender for the pass an easy lay-in.

Dante Taylor has signs of life. But for the inadvertent elbow to the face, he probably would have played more. He came up with 11 points and 6 rebounds. A little better defense, but I think we all have to accept that his defensive profile is more Tyrell Biggs than Gary McGhee.

J.J. Moore getting minutes. Honestly Moore is closer to a neutral than simply good, but there is no denying the numbers. 9 points (3-3 on 3s, 3-5 overall) and 6 rebounds (all defensive) in 19 minutes. His defensive effort, though, is a frustrating sight. So eager to have the ball. In his first couple minutes when he was inserted into the game this was his sequence when the ball reached him: drill a 3, turnover, pulling up for a mid-range jumper and missing badly when he had a clear lane to the hoop, another 3. Someone on Twitter suggested that he could be as good as Sam Young if he made the commitment to defense. I would take Gil Brown comparisons, because I don’t think you can easily match the commitment Sam Young took to being a better defensive player. Moore says the right things about it, but on the court is something different.

The Bad Stuff:

Turnovers. Good lord. It wasn’t like LaSalle was pressing Pitt the entire game. That only happened in the final couple minutes. Pitt was just bad with the ball. LaSalle was getting their hands on the ball defending the perimeter. Slapping at it. Trying to poke it away. And the backcourt struggled with it. It was sloppy ball handling. It kept LaSalle in the game, Pitt had a 7:32 stretch in the first half where they only scored 3 points. In that

Talib Zanna is simply not very good. He would not have had as many minutes last night if Taylor didn’t have to go out for an extended break in the first half after taking the elbow to the face. He has no defensive presence beyond being a roadblock. Literally just standing there flat-footed and letting the LaSalle players detour around him to the basket. Bad hands kept him from grabbing many rebounds and 3 turnovers. Heplayed all of 3 minutes in the second half. At some point he goes from being a high potential project to pure bench player. It is rapidly approaching that point.

The defense. It looked at times in the first half, that Pitt was finding its footing on defense. Then the second half happened. LaSalle shot 15-30 in the second half, after going 11-30 in the first half. I guess it is some progress that they held a team under 50% for a half. The biggest problem on the defense is simply that the team relaxes. LaSalle kept having spurts in both halves where they clearly caught guys napping. Pitt’s frontcourt defense is not great. I think it will improve as Birch sees more minutes and gets more comfortable (saw some of it last night), but the backcourt is the bigger issue, and it puts more pressure on the frontcourt when they have to decide to leave their man to stop the penetration and risking being late and picking up the foul. Or then letting the guy they left score easily because the help defense couldn’t react in time.

I know Gibbs is average at best. Woodall doesn’t have the size. But they need to keep their man in front of them. Still seeing too much of penetration and blowing past the guards.

Cameron Wright is a man without confidence. Indecisive, hesitant. Scared. He got out on the court for a minute. Let the ball get poked away from him when Pitt was trying to run the offense, forcing Woodall to foul the LaSalle player to prevent the easy breakaway basket. That was the end of his night.

John Johnson had his first bad game. Picked up a couple fouls very quickly. Seemed out of sync. Didn’t get many minutes.





As many of us expected, it looks like Birch will spend his freshman year as Taylor’s backup at center. This is a good thing as he can freestyle his athletic ability a little more. He altered as many shots as he blocked. His help defense is going to be sick. The move to the 5 also ensures that Nasir Robinson can be in the game more. I think Taylor is fine as a one on one defender, but he doesn’t have particularly good anticipatory instincts…

Yeah, Zanna looks lost at PF. Perhaps we’ll see Patterson getting minutes there if Talib continues to struggle…

John Johnson seems to be the first guard off the bench now. Despite his size and quickness, he’s playing exclusively as a shooting guard. I guess I thought he would be more of a combo guard and capable of playing point. Anyway, he’s got nice quick feet but plays defense a bit too much with his hands right now. Cameron Wright looks lost and scared, but so did Wanamaker in his first season.

I though the defense looked much improved last night. They switched fast and hard, the guards crashed the boards, and they didn’t really give up many easy buckets. The turnovers on offense were horrible though. They flip the ball too nonchalant or blindly it seems. And the ball handling was atrocious. Take away the points on turnovers and giveaway fast breaks and it really would have been a larger spread.

Comment by SilverPanther in NYC 11.23.11 @ 11:58 am

My hope is that this Pitt team will peak in March.
What “peak” is, no one knows? Great analysis above and very accurate. One thing I will say about Pitt’s guards…they are finding out that on offense, they must keep more distance between tthemselves and their defenders as they are not quick or skilled enough to prevent turnovers. This is a “Feel” thing and will come with experience.

Happy Turkey day to all…Hail to Pitt!

Comment by Dan 72 11.23.11 @ 12:03 pm

So, barring injury, this means a red shirt for Gilbert (he asked w/ a sigh)?

Comment by Carmen 11.23.11 @ 12:06 pm

Zanna has seemed to regress … didn’t he play a good NYC tourney about this time last year?

Never saw Wright play before last week but was expecting more. I agree that the guard defensive play is wanting. Second close game in a row where Gibbs botched the final full possession (remember vs Butler?)

I guess Epps will be transferring.

Comment by wbb 11.23.11 @ 12:11 pm

IMHO – Plus/Minus from last night.
Plus – Birch can run the floor and was looking for action on both ends. Like to see more of him.
Plus – Defense looked better and crashed the boards esp.ly early on and then in the closing minutes. Still a mountain of work needed.
Plus – Moore can shoot.
Plus – Anytime Pitt can win with Gibbs shooting 20% can’t be bad.

Minus -Someone/anyone has to start taking the ball to the hoop. You can’t rely on long shots and win consistently.
Minus – Taylor still seems a bit soft and if he’s not there by now…….
Minus – Too many simple turnovers.
Minus – Gilbert did not get in and I would have liked to see more of Johnson. Gilbert = redshirt??

Comment by virgil 11.23.11 @ 12:26 pm

As I said in last thread, Gibbs has to focus on what he does well and avoid what he can’t do–take people off the dribble. He pounds and pounds the ball and gets nowhere. This leads to stagnant offense or a turnover.

He should focus on playing defense, moving without the ball, and shooting an absurdly high percentage. This will get him the NBA spot he desires (albeit in a specialty/bench role) while also helping his college team win (which will make us happy!).

Big props to Tray Woodall, who has come out and taken the bull by the horns this year. Can’t say enough about him and Nasir. Without them, we are 1 and 3.

Comment by Joe 11.23.11 @ 12:28 pm

Last night, Taylor played his best game, so far. He was much more aggressive. In the post game interview, Curtis Aiken commented on how much better he practiced this week. Taylor agreed and thought it carried over into the game.

I wonder if moving Birch to the center spot had anything to do with motivating Dante to be more aggressive? If so, brilliant move by Dixon. Taylor isn’t worried about Zanna taking minutes, but he should be PETRIFIED by Birch, who also played his best game last night.

Dixon should get Birch as many minutes as possible in the non-conference as a backup at both big spots. His potential is undeniable.

If you haven’t seen Birch in person, I don’t think you can appreciate just how FAST he is. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the FASTEST, base line to base line, on the team. And his shot blocking could help save this mediocre defense. It is going to take time for his game to come around, he still has a long way to go, but the investment Dixon makes now will pay off big down the road.

Comment by boubacar aw 11.23.11 @ 12:37 pm

I was very impressed with Woodall, Birch, Taylor, and Moore last night. Gibbs was way off and Robinson, and Patterson, and Zanna had too many turnovers

Comment by Tony C 11.23.11 @ 1:42 pm

Thought the defense was an improvement last night, much more active and effective communicating. Still ugly moments, and it seems EVERY mistake is taken advantage of right now.

Offense is really worrying me. As a few posters mentioned, much too stagnant on the perimeter. Careless ball-handling, as Chas mentioned. I’ve never seen the ball get slapped out of so many hands as was the case yesterday. Not to mention two horrific late game mistakes against the press. Overall the biggest concern is that nothing is coming easy. Other than Nas, the bigs are struggling to finish, when they even have a rare opportunity. From the guards, more shots seem “forced” than ever, meaning it mostly comes down to hot/cold shooting, which is scary.

Penn lost to Wagner last night. Not taking anything for granted Friday, though.

Comment by JW 11.23.11 @ 1:43 pm

Aiken said he’d like to see Sleepy and Birch together. Me too.

Comment by steve 11.23.11 @ 2:12 pm

I cannot stress this enough: OFFENSE IS NOT A PROBLEM FOR THIS TEAM. Pitt flat-out sucks defensively. If the defense doesn’t improve dramatically, then Pitt will not make the NCAA tournament.

Comment by omar 11.23.11 @ 2:50 pm

I just made a friendly $10 wager with Darren Morningstar about Pitt making the NCAA tournament this year. He says no, I say yes. The scary part is that I think I only have a 60% probability of winning the bet.

Ashton Gibbs is such a terrible defensive player and he plays so many minutes, that it will be tough for Pitt to improve as much as they need to on the defensive end. Gibbs needs to score 20+ because he gives up that many on the other end.

Comment by omar 11.23.11 @ 2:53 pm

Happy Thanksgiving to all. Please be thankful that you’re not among the 48% of the world’s population that earns the equivalent of $2 or less per day.

Comment by steve 11.23.11 @ 4:11 pm

This team looks like it will lose between 8 – 11 games this year and I’m being too kind! No big men unless Birch gets a lot of playing time to develope. Nasir is ok, but needs plenty of help which Taylor and Zanna have not shown!

Comment by michael 11.23.11 @ 4:53 pm

steve the same to you enjoy your day.

Comment by FRANKCAN 11.23.11 @ 6:48 pm

was at the game. sparse crowd. agree with all the comments on Birch. Once he puts on some weight, he will be a force. Athletic and sprints down the floor both ways. With Gilbert on the bench (why would you redshirt him with Adams coming in?), he is our only true shot blocker. Zanna is getting worse and should see fewer minutes.

Dante played well down the stretch. Kudos to him.I would like to see Birch/Taylor too, but you need Nas’s toughness on the floor. Nas “quietly” got 17 or so inside.Tra is the MVP so far this yr. with his hustle, scoring, and yes shot blocking.

Looking at the schedule, we can win 20 and get Jamie’s 11th straight tournament bid, but we will probably need 10 BE wins to do it. Barring injury, we can do it. Happy Thanksgiving to all. HTP.

Comment by Bossdaws 11.23.11 @ 9:35 pm

Bossdaws–Gilbert is a 3-4 year guy while Adams is either a one and done or a two and done. Hence Gilbert’s redshirt because he will start for a year or two (or three) after Adams is gone to the NBA.

However, if Gilert is really needed as an inside force later (BE play) because Taylor, Birch and Zanna aren’t getting it done by then–I suspect Dixon will backoff on the redshirt for this year, play him, and then redshirt him next year while playing Adams. That’s my guess.

Comment by pitt1972 11.24.11 @ 8:48 pm

Pitt began the season ranked by Sagarin’s computer in the top 10 (#8?) nationally (and in the top 3 of the BE). As a result of the weak showing so far (i.e., the loss plus the inability to win big in other games) Pitt has now dropped in Sagarin’s computer’s ranking to #53 nationally (#9 in the BE) and is predicted to beat Penn by only 5-6 points.

In March, Sagarin #53s don’t make the NCAA tourney (except those that get an automatic conference champ’s slot). There is a very long way to go and lots of work to be done or we fans are probably looking at an NIT team this season.

A good start on the improvement journey would be a comfortable double digit win at the Palestra tonight rather than a nail-biter.

Comment by pitt1972 11.25.11 @ 11:50 am

[...] found a spark that had been missing from him through the first two weeks. I wondered if he was playing himself onto the bench. Suddenly Wright may be that lockdown defender. The 6-foot-4 Cleveland native, playing small [...]


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