Well if the 78-58 final score of the Penn game on Friday was not indicative of how close Penn played Pitt, because Pitt didn’t keep a double digit lead until midway through the second half; then the 81-71 final score of Sunday night’s win over Robert Morris, didn’t reflect how much Pitt dominated the game Both were games Pitt should be expected to win and dominate. Given the shaky start to Pitt’s season, however, they were welcome easy wins.
In both games, I missed the first 12 minutes or so because the games that I DVRd were preempted by local sports recaps.
Before Dante Taylor had to sit with migraines and Lamar Patterson was suspended for a couple games, there was early conventional wisdom on a few players:
Khem Birch was less prepared for big time college than thought.
J.J. Moore still only wants to play offense and makes bad decisions.
Cam Wright is a bust in his redshirt sophomore year.
Same with Talib Zanna.
John Johnson is a mild good surprise as a true freshman.
Turns out only one of those things still holds true after the weekend. John Johnson is still looking pretty good, except for that Penn game.
Khem Birch was slid over to the center spot and found himself.
Khem Birch’s eyes became saucer-like.
“Really? I did that? How many did I have?”
Six blocks was Birch’s tally in Pitt’s 81-71 win Sunday over Robert Morris at the Petersen Events Center, one shy of the Panthers’ record shared by, well …
“Who holds the record?” Birch asked as he wheeled around en route to the locker room. “Do you know?”
Many people according to the Pitt Media Guide (p. 140). There were thirteen times that a Pitt player has blocked 7 shots in a game — but it has been a while. The last time it happened, Mark Blount did it versus UConn on December 4, 1996. About a week shy of 15 years ago.
Talib Zanna also seemed to have snapped out of whatever funk he was in over the weekend. Only 13 minutes on Friday, but he had 8 points and simply looked more comfortable. On Sunday, with Nas having an off game and with foul troubles, Zanna played 24 minutes and racked a double-double of 15 rebounds (7 offensive) and 10 points.
What was interesting was that Zanna and Birch were not exclusive to either the 4 or 5 — at least based on substitutions, playing time and my untrained eye. They manned the middle of the court on both ends, and did certain things to their position like hedging and jumping out for screens. But, dare I say, they had a little more freedom to do things that better fit their skill sets rather than strictly for the position.
I also think that with Dante Taylor being out for these two games, I cannot remember a skinnier looking front court for Pitt. Nas, Zanna, Birch, JJ. Moore. Lots of bone and muscle, but not a lot of meat.
J.J. Moore seemed to get a message after limited minutes and tossing up too many shots in the first couple of games. It started, really, in the Long Beach State game. He got good minutes, and while his defense was shaky he did share the ball more. The last couple of games he has had the chance to start and responded… enthusiastically. 29 points and 13 rebounds in the last 3 games. He still has more turnovers than assists, but he is definitely playing harder at both ends.
Moore can make plays once someone gets him the ball. Pitt doesn’t have any of those guys on the wing. Lamar Patterson is a very good facilitator who apparently “gets” what it takes to earn playing time — mainly, from what I hear, he kicks Moore’s butt everyday in practice. But Patterson is not a guy that can make the difficult look easy. He can’t catch at the three line, shot-fake, dribble and raise up like it’s an old habit. He can be the guy that delivers the pass to the guy at the three point line but not the guy that can figure out what to do fast enough when his open look is sealed off.
J.J. Moore can. JJ Moore’s a thoroughbred. Lamar Patterson’s an Ox. They both are very effective, just at different tasks.
The interesting compare and contrast to me, is that Moore is still a kid who gets going on both ends of the court if he has his shot going. When he makes that early basket it sets the tone and enthusiasm for him to play on the team. To go at it on defense. To be willing to move the ball around on offense.
Meanwhile, Birch appears to be the opposite. Playing defense. Getting his blocks fuels him.
“I just play defense at the start of games,”Birch told me after he registered 8 points, 11 rebounds and 6 blocks in 29 minutes. “The offense kind of just comes to me after I get in the flow, I just let it happen and focus on defending and going to the boards.” You listening Dante Taylor? Talib Zanna surely is because the Nigerian stud played his best basketball in over a year, grabbing 15 rebounds (7 offensive) and scoring 10 points on 5-8 shooting in 24 minutes.
J.J. Moore made a difference, even more than his numbers suggest, just by being on the court. He ran the floor. He defended and he was always a threat that the other team had to account for. Cameron Wright seized his opportunity and made the most of his 18 minutes by morphing into a Pitt version of Scottie Pippen, locking down Robert Morris star Velton Jones (1-14) while getting into the passing lanes. Wright shot 6-7 and gained confidence throughout.
The 6-foot-4 Cleveland native, playing small forward, turned two first-half steals into easy baskets during a 14-2 run that gave Pitt the lead for good. In a 91-second span, he scored more points (six) than in his first five games combined (five).
“My defense got me going,” he said. “This was my first really good game, and I was thankful for that.”
He even drew comparisons to Brad Wanamker. Wright has shown real inconsistency to this point. Three bad games, two good. Hopefully the last two are more along the lines of what to expect.
I’m pleased to this point with John Johnson. He seems to be settling in as a guard who will come in for 10-11 minutes a game. Give a bit of a spark with some aggressive defense and a willingness and ability to knock down the open jumper when presented the opportunity. Just doing all the little things expected.
As for the Colonials, it’s funny. Going into the game, they were talking big.
“We’re excited,” said Velton Jones, Robert Morris’ leading scorer. “We feel like going into Pitt, we’re going into the game with a positive feeling, like we’re going to win the game.”
Robert Morris knows well of Pitt’s early season struggles. The Colonials watched Long Beach State upset the Panthers at Petersen Events Center. Coach Andy Toole said after the Colonials beat La Salle Friday night that his players are “inundated” with information on Pitt basketball.
Robert Morris knows Pitt’s strengths and weaknesses better than any other team on the non-conference schedule along with Duquesne. The Colonials and Panthers compete with and against one another in the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am every summer.
“I know Jamie is upset with his defensive effort right now,” Toole said. “The little bit I have seen [of Pitt] it looks like they’re sharing the ball. It looks like they’re maybe not completing plays as much as they used to. I know that he’s looking for some guys to provide a spark off the bench. Hopefully, with some of our depth and our experience, not only playing against them every single year but in the summer league, maybe we can do what we’re supposed to do Sunday night.”
They were confident. They weren’t initimidated. Pitt was struggling. The players were familiar and knew the Pitt guys from summer league.
The 81-71 loss to the Panthers moved Robert Morris’ (4-2) record against Pitt to 0-30 all time, and coach Andy Toole said there was definitely a mental roadblock when his team took the floor against its cross-town rivals.
“I think it’s even more than a Big East team. I think it’s Pitt,” Toole said. “I completely think it’s more than just we’re playing a Big East team. I think the fact that it says P-I-T-T across their uniform, all of a sudden our guys bow down.”
But, but, but… Confidence? Not intimidated?