One of the more interesting games of the pre-conference schedule will occur Saturday at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh when Pitt meets Tennessee in a battle of unbeatens as part of the Big East/SEC Challenge. Pitt is 10-0 and Tennessee is 6-0.
"We haven't come close to seeing physical until we play Pittsburgh," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "Physicality is what they're known for; it's their deal, it's their personality."
Senior center Gary McGhee is part of that physical presence. The 6'10", 250-pounder is averaging 5.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 0.1 assists and 20.2 minutes a game.
Pitt has the perimeter game to go far with a stellar starting backcourt of Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wannaker, along with Gilbert Brown on the wing. Redshirt freshman Talib Zanna has plenty of potential at power forward while guard Travon Woodall and forwards Nasir Robinson and Dante Taylor provide quality depth. However, McGhee could be the missing piece for Pitt, the player who determines whether the Panthers have yet another very good season or clear the program's final hurdle and get to the Final Four.
They need McGhee to play the way he did last week in an 80-66 victory over Duquesne when he tied a career high with 12 points, set a career high with 13 rebounds and tied a school record with seven blocked shots. Granted, McGhee's performance came against an undersized Duquesne team whose best big man, Damian Saunders, is four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter. Still, McGhee always seemed to be in the perfect spot.
"At one point, we had the ball in our hands and I think it hit Gibbs in the back of the head on a pass and McGhee caught it and dunked it," Duquesne coach Ron Everhart said. "I don't know how that happened but plays like that happened a lot."
The great baseball executive Branch Rickey famously said that luck is the residue of design. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon believes that is the case with McGhee, pointing to the fact that five of his 13 rebounds against Duquesne were offensive. However, McGhee's offensive outputs have been sporadic. He has scored in double figures just twice in the first 10 games and managed just three points against Pennsylvania in the game immediately preceding Pitt's matchup with Duquesne.
"He was at the right place at the right time and we talk about that a lot," Dixon said. "As much focus gets put on guys with their post moves, offensive moves and everything else, at the end of the day big guys can score on offensive rebounds and that's what we want him to focus on. We made some good interior passes that allowed him to get some points but he really did it on the offensive glass."
Tennessee will have a week to prepare for Pitt as the Volunteers are in finals week. However, Pearl said the extra time probably won't matter.
"We could spend two months on Pitt and it wouldn't make much of a difference," Pearl said. "They are that good."
Drew Trying to Find the Range
Larry Drew II took just two shots from the field Wednesday night in North Carolina's 76-49 victory at Evansville. However, he made them both, including one from three-point range, and that was a good sign for the junior guard. Drew had been 8-for-34 (26 percent) for the season.
"I know why my shots haven't been falling—even my dad brought it to my attention," Drew II told the Raleigh News & Observer, referring to his father Larry, the head coach of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. "All of my first shots have been three-pointers, and it's kind of like where I've been getting the ball through the offense, early on in the game. If my first shot is a three all the time and it doesn't go in, the basket might shrink a little bit. He tells me just to get easier or better shots. Instead of getting a three for my first shot, get to the foul line, or shoot a floater or a pull-up. Work my way out."
Hitting a couple of shots against Evansville provided Drew with a psychological lift.
"My confidence is right where it needs to be at this point in the season," he said.
No End in Sight to Aztecs' Streak
San Diego State, nationally ranked for the first time in school history, kept rolling Wednesday night with a 77-57 road victory at California. The Aztecs raised their record to 9-0.
San Diego State has a good chance to be 15-0 when it opens Mountain West Conference play on January 5 with a road game against TCU. The rest of the Aztecs' non-conference schedule consists of San Diego, Cal Poly, UC-Santa Barbara, San Francisco, IUPUI and Occidental.
“Their seniors are playing like seniors,” California assistant coach Gregg Gottlieb, who spent eight seasons on Steve Fisher's staff at San Diego State, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “They’re confident. What they’ve done a great job of so far is managing success, which is really hard to do when you haven’t had it before.”
Here's an interesting San Diego State statistic: The Aztecs have outscored opponents by just two points in the first half but 80 points in the second half.
Johnson Denies Transfer Rumors
Rumors that were sparked by speculation on a Kansas City radio station that Kansas sophomore guard Elijah Johnson was ready to transfer spread like crazy across the internet on Tuesday. He then scored seven points and dished out three assists in 21 minutes that night as the Jayhawks beat Memphis 81-68 in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
Kansas coach Bill Self decline to comment on the rumors after the game and instead asked reporters to question Johnson directly. Johnson was adamant that he has had no thoughts of leaving Lawrence.
“Sometimes it gets confusing and irritating when people put words in your mouth," Johnson said. "You don’t say anything and have media and other people come up to you, and it doesn’t make sense at all. It seems you are the last one to find out about it. I’m a Jayhawk. I’m going be here until they kick me out. I don’t think they are going to kick me out anytime soon."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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