In theory it's too soon to worry about Pittsburgh. It's still calendar 2011, after all, and, at the risk of using an old-fashioned plain-vanilla metric, the Panthers have won 11 of their 13 games. (Ask Butler or Memphis if they'd take that record.) Besides, even in a worst-case scenario Jamie Dixon's team appears on-track to reach its 11th consecutive NCAA tournament, far and away the longest such streak in the Big East.
But the thing about college basketball is that it doesn't take place "in theory." In this sport teams are judged against expectations, and on that basis Pitt's been one of the biggest disappointments of the young season. The Panthers were ranked No. 11 in the preseason, but after last Thursday's 59-54 loss at home to Wagner, Dixon's team is looking less like one of the 11 best teams in the nation and more like one of the 11 best teams in the Big East.
True, the Panthers have had to overcome injuries and off-court distractions. Starting point guard Travon Woodall's missed six games due to a groin strain and abdominal tear, and Dixon's already seen another starter, freshman Khem Birch, leave the team (see below). Yet even allowing for such factors, you can make a case that this team's been a surprise, and not in a good way.
The story of Pitt's early season is unusually easy to summarize. The defense has been awful, and it was particularly awful over the Panthers' first 10 games. Those first 10 opponents rang up 681 points in just 643 possessions of basketball. This team was clearly on track to give up a ton of points to Big East-caliber opponents, and Dixon knew it. Accordingly he set to work on that very weakness, and heading into the game against Wagner last week he thought things were looking up. "We've come a long way," Dixon was quoted as saying of his defense before the Wagner game. "I feel good about it." Guess what? Scoring just 54 points in a 61-possession contest, Pitt recorded easily its worst game of the season on offense. So you want to be a head coach?
Now is the time for Dixon to get his offense and his defense working at the same time, because the Big East season is upon us. Pitt opens at Notre Dame on Tuesday night. On the eve of the conference season, here are some thoughts on these surprising Pitt Panthers:
We have likely seen Pitt's near future, and it's called Notre Dame.
And I don't mean simply that Dixon's team is about the play the Fighting Irish.
Pitt's played an undemanding non-conference schedule, and yet even these relatively unassuming opponents are turning the ball over on just 16 percent of their possessions. Absent NBA-track shot-blockers in one's frontcourt, an opponent turnover rate this microscopically low suggests simply that opposing offenses are too comfortable too often. In recent years Notre Dame has often displayed exactly this profile. Opponents facing the Irish have traditionally exhibited an unusually low turnover rate. This has led to plenty of exciting basketball, as the always-efficient ND offense has sought to keep pace with what is often a newly-efficient opposing offense. For better or worse this is the road the Panthers appear headed down.
Right now Pitt's operating at a possession deficit: opponents get more opportunities to score than does Dixon's team. Again, it's still early and certainly the coach's body of work is such that we'd be foolish to discount this team's potential for improvement. But right now even (and perhaps especially) Dixon has to be troubled by the thought of a proven and machine-like offense like Syracuse's taking the floor against this Pitt defense.
Ashton Gibbs can't do it all...wait, make that "shouldn't."
On paper this is yet another amazing Pitt offense. This team is monstrous on the offensive glass, pulling down 47 percent of their misses so far this season. (Even in what was by far their worst offensive game of the year, against Wagner, the Panthers couldn't be kept off the offensive boards.) And the amazing thing here, of course, is that Dixon's team doesn't miss very often. On the year this offense is draining 55 percent of its 2s and 39 percent of its 3s. In effect the only thing that can stop this offense is a turnover. On "effective" (TO-less) possessions the Panthers have averaged exactly 1.50 points per trip.
So why worry about an offense putting up those numbers? In the loss to Wagner, Ashton Gibbs was held to 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting, and without an effective night from Gibbs the Panthers looked very ordinary on offense. For the year Gibbs, a 6-2 senior, is carrying a larger load in this offense than anything seen from a Pitt star since Sam Young in 2009 -- and of course Young had a sidekick named DeJuan Blair who, you might remember, was pretty good. Gibbs has no such help: no other Panther accounts for more than 21 percent of the team's shots.
To be sure, 6-5 sophomore Lamar Patterson's performed admirably in Woodall's absence, serving as something of a point-wing, for lack of a better term. And certainly Nasir Robinson's 69 percent accuracy inside the arc should earn the 6-5 senior a few more touches. Still, if I'm Dixon I'm wondering how far my offense can go when my star, Gibbs, is very nearly shooting a higher percentage on his threes (37 percent) than he his on his twos (39).
Khem Birch would have been a handy guy to have on the court.
Many observers were surprised this month when Birch, a 6-9 freshman, announced that he was leaving the Pitt program. While Birch averaged just four points a game, the 2011 McDonald's All-American had been given six starts by Dixon and appeared to have a bright future. Consequently Birch's departure was seen by some as nothing less than an indictment of today's elite recruits and their alleged need for instant gratification. That may indeed be the case, but regardless of Birch's motivations I think he could have helped this team. Birch played 241 personal possessions against competition that included Oklahoma State and Tennessee, both of whom the Panthers faced away from the Petersen Events Center. In that short span the freshman had already proven three things, two of which were good: he was foul-prone; he could crash the offensive glass just as well as 6-9 junior Dante Taylor; and he could block shots way more consistently and more often than any other Panther. Birch may indeed be an indictment of today's youth hoops culture, but this particular indictment will be blocking shots and pulling in offensive boards for some coach sometime.
Pitt's first few games in Big East play are about as kind as possible in a league this good: at Notre Dame, at home against Cincinnati, at DePaul, and at home against Rutgers. It's not at all far-fetched to think this team could open 4-0 in the Big East. But over the long haul I'm going to keep a close eye on this defense, and on how much help Gibbs is getting on offense. At the end of the season those two factors will go a long way toward determining whether we were right to worry about this team back in late December.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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