Hope everyone had a nice MLK/Inauguration Day. I spent mine looking at cars and dealing with various used car salesmen. In my mind I’m pretending that this ordeal is me being recruited by colleges and the car is the scholarship offer. Kind of makes it a little more fun, even if there were points where I kind of forgot that the game was only in my head. There was even a salesman that reminded me of FraudGraham, turning him down cold was pleasant. I don’t think, however, he quite understood when I blurted out that he was going to crash-and-burn at ASU.
Anyways, have you seen the Big East standings?
Quite the jumble at the 1/3 mark of conference play.
The top two teams look solid. The bottom 3 as well. After that…
The Monday Big East results are yet another reminder that the league may actually be the most competitive from top to bottom in recent memory. That may not bode well for a high number of bids but there are few givens anymore. If you gave up on Georgetown then hold on because the Hoyas suddenly have life. If you were so inclined to jump on Notre Dame after a win over Kentucky you may want to wait after losses to St. John’s, UConn and now the Hoyas. Cincinnati seemingly plays every game down to the final possession like Marquette. Don’t even try to figure out Pitt at this juncture. I don’t think you have to worry about Louisville and/or Syracuse much at all, but the rest of the conference is as wacky and unpredictable as ever.
This seems to be a year where most of the conference will beat each other up. Not because everyone is so good. Instead it is a lot of inconsistency and mediocrity. You can call it parity, but the difference between teams seems so slight at times. It’s no wonder Coach Dixon is continually harping so hard on the defense and rebounds.
After Providence and DePaul, the Panthers travel to play No. 5 Louisville (Monday) and then play host to No. 3 Syracuse Feb. 2. Those games are only the beginning of a brutal stretch of games in the next three weeks that also includes visits to No. 21 Cincinnati and Marquette (No. 26 with the most votes of any unranked team this week) and a home date Feb. 18 with No. 24 Notre Dame.
“Every game is big,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We’ve had two good road wins. Now we have to go get Providence. The key is to do it the way we’ve been doing it — with defense and rebounding. It’s good to come off a win.”
Those are energy and effort related. Especially something like rebound margin. And Pitt can’t afford to think it can coast in any Big East game.
I think you can even toss Providence into the unpredictable part.
They spent a good chunk of the non-con without several key players due to injury issues. Their Big East schedule has already had them face Louisville, Cuse and Georgetown. Are they an upper-half team? No. But they can definitely win some games at home — including tonight’s.
The Friars feature the Big East‘s top scorer in 6-foot-1 junior guard Bryce Cotton, who is averaging 21.8 points, and a pair of point guards who are back from injury. Senior Vincent Council, a preseason first-team All-Big East pick who led the league in assists last season, missed 10 games with a hamstring injury. Freshman Kris Dunn missed the first nine games after shoulder surgery before setting a school record with 13 assists against Colgate.
Providence also has two of the conference‘s top rebounders in 6-6 sophomore LaDontae Henton (8.2 rebounds per game) and 6-9 junior Kadeem Batts (7.2), who are joined in the frontcourt by 6-10 sophomore Sidiki Johnson, an Arizona transfer who became eligible at the semester break.
With Council and Dunn back, Pitt is especially vulnerable. We have already seen Pitt struggles with the better backcourts. Providence’s may still be trying to gel, but they are very talented — primarily on offense. Add in the fact that Bryce Cotton is a 41% 3-point shooter, and there is reason for concern for Pitt.
Providence is not particularly deep, so most of their starters will likely play 30 minutes or more. Pitt, of course, has depth. And not simply depth, the dropoff at several spots is not particularly large so it means a lot of competition for minutes.
“I’m starting to fit in well,” Zeigler said. “I’m able to show what I can do. That’s the biggest thing right now. Just try to help the team when I can.
“Everyone is starting to figure out what we can do to be successful. For me, rebounding and making plays and just being ready whenever coach calls my number. Durand has done a good job. Cam will be ready when he’s called upon. Dante was huge off the bench [Saturday].”
Dixon said he is using a 10-man rotation out of necessity rather than luxury. Each of the five reserves do something better than the starters or provide a different kind of boost for the team.
Taylor’s ability to crash the offensive boards helped the Panthers beat Connecticut. Zeigler’s ability to penetrate and score helped them beat Villanova. Johnson’s 3-point shooting also helped against the Wildcats.
“Everyone is much more settled into their roles,” senior guard Tray Woodall said. “Everyone knows the minutes they get. They come out and play aggressive and take advantage of their opportunity
“I think it’s a testament to our depth. We have a lot of guys who work hard in practice and they’re always ready when their number is called. A guy like [Zeigler], he played a little early on and he’s been playing more as the year has gone on. He’s been working real hard. Those guys work hard in practice and it shows on the court.”
The depth also translates to a willingness to play tighter defense and risk fouls. The UConn game was the first since before Christmas where Pitt committed less than 20 fouls as well as fouled less than their opponent.
Dante Taylor came in for a bit of love after the UConn game. For being a team player.
“He‘s really an unselfish kid,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “He‘s really a great teammate, and guys like him. He doesn‘t care about his individual stats. He just wants to win. He‘s been around a lot of winning teams, and he wants to continue to do that.”
Taylor‘s most important contribution was a pass to freshman James Robinson, who turned it into a tie-breaking 3-pointer to give Pitt a lead it never surrendered. In the center of a pick and roll with Lamar Patterson, Taylor took the pass, could have turned and shot, but he spotted Robinson alone deep in the corner.
Later, in a similar situation, he accepted the pass from Tray Woodall and decided to shoot. Those plays became the most important five points of the game‘s decisive moments.
“I trusted in (Robinson), and (Woodall) trusted in me,” Taylor said.
Dixon, usually judicious with his praise, was enthused.
“I can‘t say enough about him down the stretch,” Dixon said. “We talked to him about that he may be the guy who gets the catch but not the shot. That‘s something we‘re improving on. That was huge for us. We‘ve got to continue to make right decisions at the right time. Those were two very good decisions by Dante at that point.”
“They are definitely feeding off my energy,” said Taylor about his teammates. “Not only do I know that, but the coaches know that so they tell me on the side to bring the energy up on the bench and the team feeds off of that a lot. That is a motivational thing for me and the team.”
“Dante brings energy everyday,” said wing man Trey Zeigler. “He’s a senior and you expect that, but he’s bringing it everyday. Every time there is a big play, whether he’s making it or not, he’s always getting in there and getting us pumped up, creating energy for us, and that’s big.”
Zeigler, who transferred from Central Michigan in the off-season, can’t seem to recall a rallying figure as effective as Taylor.
“Not as much as we got here with Dante,” the junior said. “Through everything he’s been through, and the fact that he’s coming off the bench as a senior, he hasn’t hesitated to be our guy, bring us energy and boost all of us up.”
Taylor’s vocal and emotional support has become so apparent that it’s a game plan for the coaching staff these days.
“As soon as I score I always yell and get real pumped up,” Taylor said. “I’m on the bench rocking back and forth and I come in, and as soon as I score I always yell and always get amped. I always try to get the crowd involved, get my teammates excited and just try to be happy while I’m out there.”
Who knew? The last 3+ years, there were plenty of comments during games about Taylor’s screaming. That it was a “me first” thing. Now we are told it is for the team.
As much as there is bemoaning that Taylor hasn’t lived up to the billing when he came out of high school. He’s been a teammate that gets it. He is part of the team. He takes on the role as needed. He accepts coming off the bench. He knows he is a cog on this team.