Oh, god. It’s the end of conference play. Big East Tourney — for the final time — looms. Then seeding and the actual NCAA Tournament. Spring practice for football starts on Tuesday. The kids start going a little crazier as Spring Break gets closer. Traveling at the end of the month. Add in doubling the off-line workload. I’ve already got a pile of links and less and less time to filter.
Time to clear the excess basketball stuff.
Hey, Ron Cook had another
radio topic column on Pitt. This one on how the losses in the NCAA Tournament bug Jamie Dixon, but he is proud of what these teams keep accomplishing.
Joe Starkey with his own topic for
the radio his column, on figuring out Pitt. Have you seen the rest of college basketball this year? Pitt is hardly the only top-25 quality team, heading to the NCAA Tournament with some headscratching losses, inconsistent play/effort, and has the pundits and fans absolutely unsure what will happen in March. I realize it isn’t something we’ve seen much from Pitt in the last ten years, but it is far more common than some seem to realize.
It’s not been the best year at the Pete for big wins. Outside of Syracuse, there really are none of note. Instead, a bunch of painful losses — Cinci, Marquette and ND. Thankfully, Pitt has done well on the road.
Prior to the past two wins, Kevin Gorman had a piece on why there is no need to panic with Pitt‘s prior two-game losing streak.
This might be a good time to remind you that prior to the defeats at Marquette and against Notre Dame, Pitt had won seven of its past eight games.
The Panthers have reached the 20-win milestone and need one victory in their final four games — against St. John’s, USF, Villanova and DePaul — to clinch a .500 Big East record.
The lapses in defense and rebounding against Marquette and Notre Dame should be alarming, given that those are the hallmarks of Pitt basketball. And Dixon has harped on their importance, to the point of sounding like a broken record.
Dixon also has been adept at playing to the Panthers’ strengths and identifying and correcting their weaknesses.
This might be a good time to remind you that Pitt also lost its first two games in Big East play, to Cincinnati and Rutgers. The Panthers were outrebounded, by five and 12, and allowed an average of 68.5 points, 13.3 above their opponents’ average this season.
There was concern they could be headed for another disappointing campaign, after finishing 16-15 in the regular season and missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Dixon in 2011-12.
This might be a good time to remind you that Pitt won eight of its next 10. That included road victories at Georgetown and Cincinnati and a home win over Syracuse, at the time respectively ranked Nos. 19, 17 and 6 in the national polls.
I say, embrace the panic. Every game is a referendum on whether Dixon can win in March. Every shot determines whether a player sucks or not, and how many more scorers are needed. Every defensive stand determines how much more athletic the team needs to get.
“There are times we’ve taken some bad shots and times we’ve passed up some shots,” Dixon said. “It’s a balance. There are times when passing up a shot to take a tougher shot is what we want to avoid. We’ve done that for the most part. We’ve done a pretty good job, but we’ve had some setbacks in that area at different times, even when we’ve shot high percentages and had great offensive outings.”
Junior forward Lamar Patterson was the player most guilty of passing up good shots to make an extra pass against Notre Dame. He continually had open 3-pointers and either made a pass on the perimeter or threw an ill-advised pass into the post. The usually efficient Patterson had a most inefficient game: two points on 1-of-5 shooting, 1 assist and 1 turnover.
Patterson is the team’s top scorer in Big East games, but teammates who average half as many points were the ones taking more shots against the Irish. Reserve guard Cameron Wright was 2 for 6 from the field. James Robinson and J.J. Moore took as many shots as Patterson, also going 1 for 5.
“We have to make better decisions,” Moore said. “I took some ill-advised shots. That led to some rebounds and buckets for them. We can’t take bad shots and we have to take good shots so we can put some points on the board. We have to learn from it and go onto the next one.”
We’ll see how long that lesson holds.
It’s a little late to start worrying about the “go-to” guy for offense. If you are looking to see Pitt shorten the bench, keep waiting. The most that happens is the minutes shrink for certain players. But expect everyone to keep playing.
During games, James Robinson’s inability to score can be glaring. But Coach Dixon is happy with the rest of his game. Especially on defense.
Before shutting down Collins, Robinson held Syracuse’s Brandon Triche and St. John’s D’Angelo Harrison to a combined 5 of 26 from the floor. Add Collins’ 2 for 8, and the trio shot 20.6 percent (7 for 34) in three Pitt victories.
Robinson hasn’t been perfect, struggling against Marquette’s Vander Blue (13 of 20, 29 points in two games) and Providence’s Bryce Cotton (9 of 16, 24). But when Robinson shuts down the opponent’s best guard, Pitt usually wins.
“The defending part of it, he’s picked it up to a high level early in the freshman year,” Dixon said. “That’s rare. He has good size, good athletic ability and smarts. He takes pride in what he is doing defensively.”
So about this “freelance” offense. Not so much freelance as just a variation on the motion offense. Somewhat surprisingly it sprang from conversations with a guy more associated with defense.
The “just-play” mentality was born out of offseason conversations Dixon had with former Pitt coach and longtime NBA assistant Tim Grgurich, now employed as a consultant with the Denver Nuggets. Grgurich was Pitt’s coach from 1975-80.
“I’ve been using that term ‘play basketball’ or ‘just play’ ” Dixon said. “That was a term [Grgurich] kept using. I’ve never used it before, but I’ve been using it a lot this year. It’s part of our package anyway, but we went with it permanently with about 16 minutes left in the second half and said this is what we’re doing all the way through. I didn’t want them thinking about things. We wanted more movement. It flowed a little better. Most importantly, we got more movement.”
Whether the Panthers run the motion offense or set plays might be a secondary issue because Dixon said the lesson from the South Florida game was the better ball movement.
The motion initiated better ball movement, but it does not appear Dixon is convinced better ball movement cannot be achieved when he calls set plays.
It worked against South Florida because the Bulls wanted to play a low-scoring, low-possession game. Dixon countered by instructing his players to push the tempo after every defensive stop. If a good shot was not found in transition, the players began to quickly move the ball in the half-court because they were not looking to the bench for set plays.
Dixon hinted that the motion offense could be more of an option when the sets are not working.
Grgurich was more known nationally for being the assistant to Jerry Tarkanian when UNLV was a force in the 80s. Grgurich was considered the brains behind the amoeba defense they played.
I would say the right players need to be out there for this iteration of a motion offense to run. Guys who are better able to drive to the basket with and without the ball. Who play better when they move more. Guys like Zeigler, Wright, Moore and Johnson would fit the style better. Robinson and Patterson not so much.