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November 22, 2010
Coaches v. Cancer
Pitt Wins a Close One

by Asher Fusco

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2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer at Madison Square Garden
Thursday:
Texas 90, Illinois 84 (OT)
Pitt 79, Maryland 70

Friday:
Illinois 80, Maryland 76 (3rd place)
Pitt 68, Texas 66 (title game)

NEW YORK -- Courtesy of Bruce Weber and Illinois, we learned on Thursday night in Madison Square Garden that big men who stand 7-1 and 6-9 have a tough time guarding the Texas frontcourt. Fortunately for Pitt, the bigs they bring in off the bench had no such problems in the title game of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. The sound performances of reserve forwards Nasir Robinson and Dante Taylor helped provide the difference, as the Panthers topped the Longhorns, 68-66, on Friday night. (Prior to that Illinois defeated Maryland 80-76 in the tournament's consolation game.) The depth of Jamie Dixon's team could be very important come the final month of Big East play, when Pitt draws West Virginia and Villanova twice and Louisville and St. John's once.

"Guys definitely know their roles," said Pitt guard Travon Woodall. "We've got a lot of dirty work players like Nasir (Robinson) who's coming back from a knee injury but at the same time he was out there defending, getting loose balls and just playing hard."

The solid performance of players like Robinson, Taylor, and forward J.J. Richardson helped Pitt hold a lead for the entire second half, despite foul trouble for starting big men Gary McGhee and Talib Zanna. The fact that Robinson and Taylor teamed up to quiet the potent Texas duo of Gary Johnson and Tristan Thompson and to take wide Maryland forward Jordan Williams out of his element one night earlier bodes well for Pitt's chances of winning the Big East. Sophomore guard Woodall also provided a steady hand off the bench, and even earned a spot on the tournament's all-star team.

That isn't to say Pitt's starters disappointed at Madison Square Garden. Wide-bodied center McGhee was the source of much early frustration for Thompson, who just didn't have the bulk to fight through box-outs from the Pitt senior's substantial backside. Zanna, a freshman, battled fouls early and often against Texas and only played 15 minutes, but led all players in offensive and defensive rebound rates in the Panthers' 79-70 semifinal win against Maryland. Dixon sacrifices scoring ability when he uses Woodall instead of Ashton Gibbs at the point and gives up defense and size when opting for Woodall over Brad Wanamaker. But the ability to turn to various combinations helped Pitt mix things up on offense and enabled Gibbs to find enough open shots to keep Texas at bay. The end result of Gibbs' 24-point eruption and an influx of offense from the bench was a solid 1.05 points per possession that defied the stereotype of Pitt as a team that often "wins ugly."

"We're offensively one of the most efficient teams in the country year in and year out," Dixon said in response to a question about his team's ugly rep. "We out-rebound people and we don't turn it over. To me, those are pretty good stats."

The Panthers, picked by many as the favorites in the Big East, look even better than expected five games in. Gibbs is adjusting well to handling more of the lead guard responsibilities and Woodall is growing into the solid and consistent guard his sterling hoops pedigree at St. Anthony High might suggest. Wanamaker, a senior, has shown improvement across the board while senior wing Gilbert Brown waits for his shooting touch to return. Zanna has come out of nowhere to become one of an outstanding defender alongside the burly senior McGhee.

While Pitt is mostly a known commodity with five experienced upperclassmen anchoring its rotation, Texas is a team with plenty of room to grow this season. Two of the Longhorns' starters are freshmen and the team's go-to player and sixth man are both sophomores.

Thompson is far from a finished product, but he's already good enough at this point to be one of the Big 12's best post players. Hamilton is the team's offensive catalyst, an exceptionally talented wing with shot-selection and defensive issues. Sixth man J'Covan Brown is a gunner who could be a real asset if his career 28 percent three-point shooting reaches the level his 86 percent free throw shooting suggests it could. Freshman guard Cory Joseph is the young Longhorn with the most to learn. The top-ten recruit may have provided a highlight-reel-worthy clutch jumper to give the 'Horns a late lead on Illinois, but he was nearly invisible for the rest of the tournament. Joseph didn't use more than 15 percent of Texas' possessions in either game and ended up with an effective FG percentage below 25.

No matter the context, no matter the degree of difficulty required, Hamilton is a good bet to shoot the ball. Writers mentioned his lack of prudence last season, and he's since ratcheted his shot rate up from 28 percent to 38 percent. It hasn't been a bad thing yet: Hamilton's eFG sits at 57 so far this season thanks to 42 percent three-point accuracy. As much as Hamilton helped keep Texas in the game, he needs to work on some aspects of his game. The 6-7 sophomore was such a liability on defense that Texas coach Rick Barnes substituted him in on offensive trips and out on defensive possessions near the end of the Pitt game.

When asked after the game about the substitution pattern, Hamilton said all the right things: That he was ready to put in extra work when the team returned to Austin and that he understood the move. Asked about Hamilton specifically, Barnes criticized his entire team for playing outside of the offense. "We do some things that young teams do in terms of not listening all the time, coming out of timeouts and executing," Barnes said. "We played like we had a chance to get some momentum going and we came down and did a little bit of one-on-one a couple times as opposed to getting in it and grinding it."

What we learned about Pitt
The Panthers play great offense outside and great defense everywhere. Pitt isn't going to score much inside other than off of offensive boards. And that's not necessarily a problem. The Panthers received five 20 percent-plus usage rate performances in the two tournament games. Four of those came from guards Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker (two apiece) and one came in a seven-minute, three-shot showing from forward Nasir Robinson against Maryland. Gibbs, who has played well so far this season at the point, shifted off the ball for sections of the championship game and turned up his offensive aggressiveness. He finished with 24 points on 14 field goal attempts and single-handedly outscored Texas 10-2 during a run early in the second half. "(Gibbs) was the guy who was shooting it, so we ran pretty much every play we had for him and he kept making shots," Dixon said.

The Panthers' big men played well in the Big Apple, especially in the semifinal victory against Maryland. Zanna enjoyed something of a coming out party on a big stage, hauling in 14 percent of his team's misses and 39 percent of the available defensive rebounds while scoring 14 points on seven shots. McGhee didn't fill the stat sheet on either night, but he slowed the event's top offensive big men, Maryland's Jordan Williams and Texas' Tristan Thompson. Zanna should score a few points each game on put-backs, but don't expect Dixon to run his offense through the post too often. So far this season, Zanna (18 percent) and McGhee (11 percent) have the lowest usage rates of Pitt's starters.

What we learned about Texas
The 'Horns are long. Starting forwards Thompson, Gary Johnson and Jordan Hamilton will win Texas some games in the Big 12. The Longhorn frontcourt may not have passed the pre-tip eye test against an Illinois frontcourt that boasted a 7-1 center and two 6-9 forwards, but Hamilton and company looked like the real deal once play began.

Thompson alone made the trip to Madison Square Garden worthwhile for the many NBA scouts in attendance. The 6-8 freshman played 80 of 85 possible minutes, in which he posted an effective FG percentage of 63, blocked nearly ten percent of opponents' shot attempts and grabbed about ten percent of available offensive boards. Thompson didn't fare as well on the defensive glass and went 7-for-17 from the free throw line, but these are fairly minor complaints considering we're talking about Thompson's third and fourth collegiate games. "(Thompson) continues to get better each and every night he goes out," said Barnes. "He does some really good things on each side of the court. I think his greatest talent is that he can just go forever."

Hamilton is what you might call a go-to player (when he's on) or a dying star collapsing on itself (when he's off). As mentioned earlier, his lack of prudence hasn't been a bad thing so far this season. Hamilton could win the Big 12 scoring title this year by a wide margin.

Without the herculean efforts of its three frontline starters, Texas would have been in trouble. Highly touted freshman point guard Cory Joseph was completely overmatched, scoring 12 points on 3-for-13 shooting. Senior guard Dogus Balbay might have enhanced his reputation as a defensive specialist by locking down Illinois' Demetri McCamey late in the 'Horns semifinal victory, but he looked a step slower than he had before a February ACL injury.

What we learned about Illinois
These might not be the same old Illini. Bruce Weber's team pushed its way to a 79-possession pace against Texas, with McCamey and fellow guard Brandon Paul wasting little time attacking the Longhorn defense. Illinois then followed that up on Friday with a mid-tempo 71-possession game. If last season's rise into the neighborhood of average tempo was a departure from Illinois' plodding paces of years past, this season has been an international flight. The team's willingness to run seems to start with its guards, especially a quicker, leaner McCamey. McCamey and Paul both starred in the team's 80-76 consolation-game victory against Maryland. Paul scored 12 points on 3-for-3 shooting off the bench while McCamey recorded a 20-point, seven-assist effort. McCamey's career-long maturing process has been well-documented, but it's hard to stress how crucial the senior's performance is to the Illini cause. If the 6-3 guard keeps playing like he did at MSG, Illinois will be a tough out for any Big Ten team. You can count Maryland coach Williams among the believers in--and victims of--McCamey's improved athleticism.

"(McCamey)'s strong. The thing that's deceiving is it looks like he's slow because of the way he dribbles or that he looks thick for a guard," Williams said. "But when he wants to go, he's got another gear and he catches a lot of guys by surprise."

What we learned about Maryland
Gary Williams' team could use a point guard. For what seemed like an eternity, Greivis Vasquez steered Maryland's ship. He may have been erratic at times, but the Terrapins obviously used his considerable skill to their advantage. Without Vasquez, the closest thing to a floor leader Maryland has is the two-headed, turnover-happy monster of Adrian Bowie and Pe'Shon Howard. The Terps have solid players on the wing in Cliff Tucker and Sean Mosley, but the offense looked unsteady and very average in New York without a consistent distributor.

On the bright side, there's Jordan Williams, an exceptionally skilled supersized post on offense. A reliable lead guard could do wonders for the 6-10 sophomore, who will need to be a force every night out in the ACC in order for Maryland to hang with the league's top teams. Maryland didn't ever look bad at the 2K Sports Classic, but somehow the Terps came across as the weakest of the four teams. Gary Williams has enough veteran talent for a return trip to the NCAA tournament, but the conference slate won't be easy with their current backcourt configuration.

Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.

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