Pitt has size to compete inside, but it does not have strength right now. If there is one weakness in having Talib Zanna and Steven Adams as the starting frontcourt, it is that both lack the pure physical strength to bang and fight for position inside. Especially when teams are packing it inside whether in a zone or to crash the boards.
A passive defensive scheme still paid off for the Bison, who had a 17-16 edge in rebounding, held Pitt to six field goals on 17 shots from 2-point range and only trailed, 36-28, at the break.
“We wanted to control the paint,” Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry said. “We thought we could control the paint in the zone, make them make eight or nine passes, make them think a little bit, make it look like the paint wasn’t available.”
Howard’s big men, center Alphonso Leary and forward Mike Phillips, upstaged Pitt’s post players early in the game. Each scored 8 points in the opening half to help Howard finish with 24 points in the paint.
Pitt, meanwhile, had just 10 points in the paint.
Especially in the first half. It also helped Howard dominate inside by being extremely physical with Pitt inside. Even with a lot of stuff allowed, four of Howard’s starters had two fouls in the first half.
It helped Howard give Pitt a tough first half. Pitt could not get anything inside. Worse, they were struggling with getting rebounds.
Steve Adams, for all his size, has struggled in the last few games to squeeze the ball. He can get a hand on it, but has not looked prepared for opposing players to rip or tip the ball away from him. I had hoped that after the two games up at Madison Square Garden (where he had all of 4 rebounds), he would be more aware of the need to be stronger going for the ball. That was not the case — at least in the first half. Adams got shoved around and outworked for rebounds.
In the second half, Adams — and the rest of the team — looked a lot better at getting rebounds. Rather clear that Coach Dixon gave them an earful at the half.
“The first half, we came out flat-footed. And (at halftime), we got yelled at by coach, so everybody was focused,” forward Talib Zanna said.
Zanna, held to 2 points in the first half, made all of his second half field goal attempts and finished with 12 points and eight rebounds. And center Steven Adams, responsible for just one rebound in the first half, grabbed five off the glass in the second.
“The rebounding thing really stands out,” Dixon said. “It’s something that should be a strength of ours but isn’t right now. We spent two days addressing it, but it’s just not getting done.”
The rebounding was an issue against Michigan and to a lesser extent against Delaware. It was something Coach Dixon had made no secret about wanting to see improved after the trip.
For the season, the Panthers have outrebounded their opponents by an average of 7.5 per game. Dixon’s goal is to outrebound every opponent by 10.
“The rebounding was not where we wanted it to be,” Dixon said. “I thought this was going to be a good rebounding team. But we haven’t rebounded well enough from the beginning — even in our big blowout 35-point wins. Against Michigan, we got beat on the boards point blank, and that’s why we lost. No question about it.
“Our rebounding is something we’re known for. It’s something we’ve probably done among the best in the country over the long haul. Right now, we’re not. So, when you lose a game and get outrebounded by 12 in the second half, you can point to this and that, but, at the end of the day, that’s what we do. When we don’t, we come up short.”
This is going to be an ongoing issue. Especially once Big East play begins and Zanna and Adams have to go up against better skilled and and stronger frontcourts.
Some of it can be improved. Adams is still too casual going for rebounds, and Zanna’s propensity to float out of the paint rather than getting near the basket at the defensive end puts him out of position. Coach Dixon can also try to help them more by sending more players into the paint on rebound chances. Too often, the rest of the team is out on the perimeter waiting to see if the bigs can corral the board or tip it out.
A week earlier, Lamar Patterson was struggling with his shot. Shooting around 40% from outside the arc last year, Patterson was missing everything. He was expected to be a leading scorer and playmaker on the team. It wasn’t happening. Leading to questions about whether being expected to score more while handling the ball less wasn’t working. Instead he found his range last week. Last night he drilled four straight 3s against Howard and providing the spark to give Pitt some space before the the end of the first half.
James Robinson also showed signs of life on the perimeter. There is so, so much to love about Robinson. Decisionmaking, ball-handling, presence, energy and effort. But his shooting had not been one of them. He came into the game 1-9 on 3s and 14-34 overall. Against the Bisons he was 2-2 on 3s and 4-6 overall. Hopefully his shooting becomes a bit more consistent.
As for why Durand Johnson only played a few minutes, Coach Dixon says that he has a hamstring injury.