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February 10, 2011
All Eyes on Pitt
Is This the Year?

by John Gasaway

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Let's get this out of the way. Pitt hasn't been to the Final Four since 1941. And, with all due respect to the NCAA tournament as it existed 70 years ago, back then a team had to win just one tournament game to reach the national semifinals -- there were only eight teams in the entire field.

So, yes, that is quite the Final Four drought, one that Jamie Dixon seems to be tired of hearing about. "Look at the list of schools that have been to the Final Four," Dixon said this week. "That's usually not a program-changer. A national championship puts you in a different light."

That may sound a little defensive, but I happen to think the coach is exactly right. No one right now is especially awe-struck by Butler or West Virginia just because those teams reached the Final Four ten short months ago. We'd do well to remember that streaks like the one Pitt's laboring under capture our imagination precisely because they're so unusual. After all, if Villanova's Scottie Reynolds had missed that last-second layup against the Panthers in the 2009 Elite Eight, there might not be a streak to talk about right now. Getting to the Final Four is hard, but in any given year the best team in the Big East would figure to have a pretty good shot at reaching that particular destination.

So with that in mind, I present to you the best team in the Big East, a group that won't be satisfied with anything less than a trip to Houston in April.

Pitt has a great offense. Really.
Dixon's team has played 704 possessions against Big East opponents, and over that span the Panthers have scored 808 points. That works out to 1.15 points per trip, which is outstanding. Why, then, do observers insist on fretting about Pitt "scoring enough" to get to Houston? Honestly, I have no idea. Ordinarily when an offense is better than people are saying it is, a few possibilities come to mind. Maybe the team in question plays at a really slow pace. Or maybe they generate their points by never committing turnovers.

Thing is, that's a much better description of Wisconsin than it is of Pitt. The Panthers have averaged 64 possessions per 40 minutes in conference play in a league that averages 65. And, sure, Dixon's team takes pretty good care of the ball, committing a turnover on just 19 percent of their possessions against Big East opponents. But even in an imaginary universe where teams never commit turnovers, this would still be the best offense in the nation's most prominent conference. On each turnover-less or "effective" possession in conference play, Pitt's averaging 1.43 points. (The Big East average is 1.28.) Face it, doubters, this is a great offensive rebounding team that makes its threes and gets to the line. They sure look like they can score enough from where I'm sitting.

The Panthers can win without Ashton Gibbs -- but his return will be most welcome.
This past weekend Pitt announced that leading scorer Gibbs will be sidelined for one to two weeks with an MCL injury in his left knee. The Panthers managed to win on the road without Gibbs on Monday night, beating West Virginia 71-66. That being said, this team has a larger margin for error with Gibbs than without him. The 6-2 junior is the purest of pure shooters, hitting 49 percent of his threes and 96 percent of his free throws in Big East play. And while the balanced Panther offense doesn't have a Kemba Walker- or Jimmer Fredette-type star, the presence of a perimeter threat like Gibbs clearly puts an added strain on an opposing defense. In Gibbs' absence it will be up to seniors Gilbert Brown and Brad Wanamaker to do more of what they do best. In Brown's case that means threes (he's shooting 43 percent in conference play) and getting to the line, while Wanamaker excels at creating opportunities for his teammates.

Gary McGhee is your typical unheralded but vital senior.
The Panthers are excellent on the glass at both ends of the floor -- a claim no other Big East team can make -- and for that Pitt fans can thank McGhee. In conference play the 6-10 senior has pulled down 16 percent of his teammates' misses during his minutes. Then he goes down to the other end and hauls in 27 percent of opponents' missed shots. In addition McGhee's a pretty fair shot-blocker, a talent which has contributed to a notable lack of success for opposing offenses in the paint. Maybe it's because Dixon keeps him so fresh -- McGhee averages just 22 minutes a game, and those minutes are largely free of foul trouble. Whatever the reason, when the senior big man is in the game he makes his presence felt in no uncertain terms.

Pitt plays at Villanova Saturday night, a game that would seem to be a tall order for a team coping with the loss of its leading scorer. The Wildcats will definitely pose a challenge, but one odd feature of Jamie Dixon's 22-2 team is that both of their losses occurred in Pittsburgh. In addition to losing a five-point game on their home floor to Notre Dame, the Panthers also dropped a seven-point decision to Tennessee back in December when the Volunteers paid a visit to the Consol Energy Center. In true road games the Panthers are 5-0.

Dixon hopes his team's road chops will continue to work their magic in Philadelphia. Or, better yet, in Houston.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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