Why Pitt could finally reach Final Four, Villanova's big flaw and more
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Our leadoff question this week comes from Steven Howard of Pittsburgh. He asks:
I've heard a lot of chatter about loaded Duke, Jared Sullinger-led Ohio State, promising Kansas (especially when Selby joins the fray), K-State, UConn and a host of other top 15 teams. One team I haven't heard anything about is 9-0 Pitt. What are your thoughts on the Panthers? Is this the year they finally make a Final Four?
This is a timely question, because it has occurred to me lately that even though the Panthers are ranked third in both polls, were picked to win the Big East and have been one of the most successful programs over the past decade, they don't seem to be generating much buzz. Ask any random fan or expert who they think is going to the Final Four, and my guess is you'll get disproportionally more people picking No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Ohio State while leaving out Pitt. And as Steven pointed out, even teams ranked below the Panthers -- Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas, Kansas State and UConn come to mind -- have produced a lot more "chatter" during the first six weeks of the season.
Why is this the case? Well, in the first place, Pitt has not played the most glamorous nonconference schedule. The Panthers' best wins came in Madison Square Garden over Maryland and Texas, but they didn't exactly look like worldbeaters, winning by nine and two points, respectively. Pitt will be on center stage this weekend when it faces No. 11 Tennessee at home (at the off-campus Consol Energy Center), but usually people start locking in on this team after Big East play begins.
Second, let's face it -- this is not the sexiest team to watch. Pitt is usually at the top of the national rankings in offensive efficiency and near the top of the Big East rankings in scoring, but even at their best the Panthers are typically one of the slowest teams in the country. Over the last five years, they have ranked an average of 256th nationally in tempo. They are currently 259th, even while they are scoring nearly 83 points per game.
Third, as indicated by Steven's allusions to Sullinger and Selby, there are few things that generate buzz more than high-profile freshmen. Pitt doesn't have any. The only McDonald's All-American on the roster is sophomore forward Dante Taylor, and he is averaging 15 minutes a game off the bench. This is also a measure of the lack of respect this program gets, because the people who select players for the big all-star games tend to favor the ones who have signed with the big-name schools.
The fourth reason is the most obvious. As good as Pitt has been in the recent past, the Panther have never made the Final Four, much less won a national championship. Until Pitt breaks through at the end of March, fans will not reflexively think about it as being one of the truly elite programs in America, even though it clearly is.
So then, to Steven's question. Is this the year Pittsburgh finally makes the Final Four? Hard to say for sure, but at the risk of feeling like Charlie Brown getting ready to kick Lucy's football, here are my (final) four reasons why I like the Panthers' chances:
1. They're old. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon laughed when I said this to him on the phone earlier this week. "It's funny how we went from being the youngest team in America [last year] to now we're old. There's no in between with you guys," he said. He has a point, but that's how fast things change in college basketball. The Panthers returned seven of their top eight scorers from last year's 25-9 squad. If you count junior forward Nasir Robinson as a starter -- he is coming off the bench because of an injury, but he plays starter's minutes and is fifth on the team in scoring -- then that means Pitt has two juniors and three seniors in its starting lineup.
You know who also had three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup last season? Duke, that's who.
2. They're tough. This has become such a staple of this program that some of Dixon's softer teams have been called tough purely based on reputation. "I think it comes from being in Pittsburgh. It just fits the stereotype," he said. It also fits this team, which may be the best rebounding unit Dixon has ever had. Through their first nine games, the Panthers lead the nation in rebound margin (+16.0) and offensive rebound percentage (48.5). Though Dixon said they need to tighten up their defense, they are still a respectable 25th in defensive efficiency.
3. They're deep. Maybe if Dixon didn't play so many guys, he wouldn't feel like his team was so young. This is the deepest team he has had during his eight-year tenure. Pitt has a 11-man rotation, with nine players averaging at least nine minutes and five points per game. Eventually I believe Dixon will have to shorten his bench, but it's good to have lots of options at his disposal, especially in case of an injury.
4. They're due. I could prattle on about how highly I think of Pitt's interchangeable backcourt duo of Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker (combined stats: 31.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists), or the fact that they're one of the few teams in the country that can throw the ball into the post (6-foot-10 senior Gary McGhee and 6-9 freshman Talib Zanna won't remind anyone of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but at least they can establish position, catch the ball and force the defense to adjust). But this program has had good players before. In fact, a few of Dixon's past teams probably had more talent than this one does.
Very few programs, however, have been as good as Pittsburgh this past decade. Only Duke and Kansas have more Sweet 16 appearances during the last eight years than Pitt's five. Over the last nine years, the Panthers have led the Big East in overall win percentage (.790), league win percentage (.727) and consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. Yet, the 2009 team was the first to reach the Elite Eight since 1974, and only a Scottie Reynolds mad dash prevented them from their long-awaited breakthrough. The fact that Pitt has restocked itself just two years later should tell you all you need to know about the job Dixon is doing in Steeltown.
So I asked the coach point blank: Is this your year? "Every year is our year," he replied. "You just have to keep knocking at the door and giving yourself a chance."
Pittsburgh has a very good chance to make the Final Four. But even if it doesn't happen, the Panthers will be right back in the hunt next year. If you're a fan like Steven, that's really all you can ask for.
On to the rest of the Mailbag:
Why do you seem to forget that Sendek was at N.C. State for 10 years and made just one Sweet 16? He also did not win an ACC championship. Why shouldn't State fans expect more? In 1989, State's program had a history on par with UNC and better than Duke. State fans who still remember that history have a right to demand more. Sendek got 10 years, so why doesn't Lowe get at least six years?
-- Blake Sims, Cleveland, Tenn.
This was one of several e-mails I got in response to my comment about the poor way Sendek was treated by N.C. State fans. For starters, Blake is playing games with stats. He gives you a 10-year rundown of Sendek without mentioning that by the time he left Raleigh, Sendek had taken the Wolfpack to five consecutive NCAA tournaments, losing in the first round just once. His Sweet 16 appearance was in 2005, and he had just locked up a terrific recruiting class headed by point guard Chris Wright, who summarily backed out of his commitment and is now excelling at Georgetown. Sendek clearly had things on the upswing, but that wasn't good enough for the local fans, so he got out of dodge.
Also, while it's true N.C. State was more competitive with Duke and North Carolina in 1989, Sendek did not take over as head coach until 1996. By that point the program was barely on a par with East Carolina.
While I sympathize with N.C. State fans who want to see their team compete more evenly with those buggers down the road, the hard truth is that is nobody will be able to make that happen as long as Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski are running those programs -- and those guys aren't going anywhere for a while. Like I wrote this week, I hope Sidney Lowe gets it rolling and keeps his job for all eternity, but there is simply no way to argue that N.C. State is better off now than the day Sendek left for Tempe. So please don't even try.
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