It should be easy to tamp down some the excitement and revised expectations for Pitt after only three games. They were all home games. The first two were against clearly overmatched teams that no one will confuse with mid-major giant-slayers. The second-half rout of Lehigh was nice, but it’s not like the Mountain Hawks were sneaking up on anyone. Not this year. The first real test (and possibly the only one of the non-con) comes on Wendesday at Madison Square Garden against number 5, Michigan. Then, and only then should the expectations be reconsidered.
I am having a hard time not being really excited for the possibilities of this squad. The way they dismantled Lehigh in the second half after a back-and-forth first half was thorough and complete. They shut the McCollum and the rest of Lehigh down on offense and were having their way with them on the other end. It wasn’t a short blitz that put the game out of reach. It was a methodical beatdown over the first 10+ minutes of the second half. Seeing so many players not only contributing, but being part of the team as they beat them was something.
Talib Zanna looks so incredibly polished on offense. He looks nothing like the long-limbed project of his first couple years. Even when he seemed to start coming on in the CBI, it is a far different player. Much more confident in his own ability and with what he is supposed to do on the court. Showing an out of nowhere smooth mid-range jumper almost makes me think he cut a deal on his soul over the summer.
Durand Johnson is getting his chances. He shows moments of being too eager to prove he belongs at points on offense — as so many young players do — but he adjusted with more time. More importantly, he is working on both ends of the floor. His reputation coming into Pitt was that he loved shooting, with defense mainly potential because of his size and athleticism.
James Robinson is the opposite. His offense is mainly in facilitating. He is yet to make a 3, and if it isn’t a drive to the basket, I can’t bet on the shot going. That said, he has been everything you could hope to see in a young point guard. His defense is aggressive without being stupid. He was all over C.J. McCollum, and frustrated the senior guard to the point McCollum body shoved Robinson halfway across the court — and got called for the foul.
J.J. Moore remains a streaky shooter — especially on the perimeter. But playing more power forward is paying off with him being closer to the basket and staying aggressive rather than taking contested jumpers. He is definitely taking more pride in playing defense (though, results can vary at times).
Dante Taylor has a literal spring in his step these days. He is healthier in the knees than all of last year. But it also seems to be mental. That he is finally embracing more of his strengths. He is not the shooter he thought he was, but he is an excellent rebounder and is getting after it. 21 rebounds in 53 minutes leads the team.
Who leads the team in assists? Yes, it is Woodall, but second is Lamar Patterson with 13. While expected to be one of the main pieces on offense, Patterson has been content to facilitate to this point and wait for his chances. Teams have keyed on him early because of the way he played last year, and he has not forced things. As teams have to pay more attention to Zanna and others on the floor, Patterson will see more open looks.
Steven Adams is raw, athletic, active, awkward. Everything you can expect from a freshman center — even one with a very high ceiling. He is making mistakes, but he is also making lots of plays. His mere presence attracts attention on offense and is helping make things easier for Zanna or Moore at the 4.
James Robinson is the future leader of this team, but there is no doubt that Tray Woodall is the guy in charge on the court. He is a team leader and you can see the rest of the team not only follow his directions, but follow his example. In light of his injury from last year, I cringe everytime he drives to the basket — and gets knocked down to the ground — but he keeps doing what he feels the team needs. He isn’t threatened by Robinson, but instead seems invigorated to have him in the backcourt with him.
No question, the overall quality of opponents for Pitt has been sub-par. And this team will take some lumps along the way. At the same time, this team still has so much room to improve during the season, that I am having a hard time not being excited at what could be with this team.