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January 14, 2010
How Can Pitt Be This Good?

by John Gasaway

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Watching Pitt take on Connecticut last night at the XL Center in Hartford, I couldn’t help but think back to the last time these two teams had met on this floor. You’ll no doubt remember that February 2009 game as the night that DeJuan Blair flipped Hasheem Thabeet over his back. It was a spectacular sight, no doubt, but if anything it overshadowed both Blair’s individual accomplishment (he posted a 22-23 double-double against nominally the strongest front line in the country) and his team’s. In addition to playing at home, the Huskies entered that game 24-1 and ranked as the number one team in the nation.

The rankings carried by these two teams weren’t as lofty last night, but it’s useful to view the Panthers’ surprising 4-0 start in the Big East through the lens of this year’s 2-3 Connecticut team, one that is soldiering on without not only Thabeet but also Jeff Adrien and A.J. Price. Nevertheless, Jamie Dixon’s team is even younger than UConn in terms of returning possession-minutes. RPMs measure not only how many minutes a roster has lost from year to year but also how big a load the departed players carried in the previous year’s offense. If RPMs are any indication, Pitt right now should look a lot younger than they did in Hartford last night.

Someone tell Jamie Dixon his team can’t possibly be this good
Big East teams that made the 2009 NCAA tournament:
Percentage of 2008-09 possession-minutes that returned for 2009-10

               RPMs(%) 
West Virginia    82
Villanova        64
Louisville       52
Syracuse         39
Connecticut      38
Marquette        34
Pitt             28 

Parsing the RPM figures from the last few years of major-conference ball, the team that Pitt 2010 should most closely resemble is Ohio State 2008. Remember Ohio State 2008? Of course not, that’s my point! The Buckeyes that year had just bid farewell to Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, and Ron Lewis (sounding similar yet?). Thad Matta had to make do with a lineup featuring Jamar Butler and a bunch of young guys, most notably McDonald’s All-American and subsequent one-and-done Kosta Koufos. OSU finished 10-8 in the Big Ten that year and won the NIT. (When the Buckeyes reached New York a hitherto low-scoring freshman named Evan Turner blew up, scoring 37 points in two games at Madison Square Garden.) That should more or less be Pitt’s ceiling.

Instead it would appear that the Panthers are on a somewhat more ambitious trajectory. They’re 4-0 in the Big East despite the fact that they’ve played just one home game in-conference. (Ironically that game, a 65-52 win over Wainwright-era DePaul at the Petersen Events Center, was arguably their least impressive outing of the young conference season.) Now Pitt will play six of their next nine games at home. Ken Pomeroy’s computer might still be relatively suspicious of this team (no responsibly programmed hard drive is going to be wowed by a group with a ten-point neutral-floor loss to Indiana on its resume), but for better or worse the Panthers now have an excellent opportunity to barricade themselves in the cushy suite at the top of the Big East standings.

Which raises the question: How did this happen? With apologies to Dean Oliver I hereby give you The Four (Pitt) Factors, courtesy of my good friend and longtime indispensable collaborator, 20-20 hindsight.

1. Woody Allen.
When he’s not busy yet again casting Scarlett Johannson as his co-star in his latest obscure film (like you wouldn’t), Allen haunts his spacious Manhattan townhouse secure in the proud knowledge that he was the author of perhaps the single most incontestably true statement ever: “90 percent of success is showing up.” At the beginning of the season Pitt was without the services of 6-6 wing Gilbert Brown (academically ineligible) and 6-3 guard Jermaine Dixon (injured). Now Dixon’s in the starting lineup, while sixth man Brown has proven to be uncannily accurate inside the arc.

2. Defense.
A Ben Howland-legacy program is supposed to defend, of course, and indeed back in the day (the Aaron Gray day) Pitt really was outstanding on D. Alas, the legend here outlived the reality, particularly last year when arguably the best offense the Big East has seen in years was operating out of the Petersen Events Center on Terrace Street. This year, however, the pendulum would appear to be swinging back toward the long-cherished D-heavy stereotypes where Panther hoops are concerned. I realize four conference games aren’t a lot to go on, but, hey, those games do represent 22 percent of Pitt’s Big East regular season. In that first 22 percent of the schedule, Dixon’s team has held opponents to just 0.95 points per possession, the best mark posted in-conference by any Big East defense thus far.

3. The surprising emergence of Ashton Gibbs.
I’ve seen Gibbs referred to as one of the “most improved” players in the country this year, but it might be more accurate to call him one of the most intriguing question marks left over from last year. As incredible as the 2008-09 Pitt offense was, there were times (and almost without exception they occurred when DeJuan Blair was in foul trouble) when this team could have used some points from perimeter. I realize you may not remember Gibbs from last year but, trust me, he was present, to the tune of 11 minutes a game. Not only did Gibbs get on the floor every now and then, he even made 44 percent of his threes. But on a team this good there were simply no minutes available for a freshman who’d been judged good but certainly not great coming out of high school. Look now: Gibbs is hitting 41 percent of his threes while taking fully 30 percent of this team’s shots during his minutes. Maybe Gibbs hasn’t improved, he’s just used now.

4. Kismet.
Gibbs is pretty clearly an outstanding pure shooter, but for some reason in calendar 2010 his teammates have been under the misapprehension that they are too. Pitt as a team has hit 43 percent of their threes in Big East play. Conference opponents, meanwhile, have made just 20 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc. (Note for example that Syracuse’s doom was sealed when the Orangemen made just 1-of-13 threes against the Panthers in the Carrier Dome on January 2.) Those two numbers, now so widely separated, will converge as more basketball is played. And, personally, I would file “Gary McGhee and Dante Taylor combining to approximate Blair so well” at least partly under kismet but maybe that’s just me.

It might be a stretch to pencil in Pitt as a shoo-in to reach Indianapolis in April just yet, but Jamie Dixon’s team has already exceeded not only that fickle mish-mash known as expectations but also the actual performance recorded by previous teams in the Panthers’ boat. For that the fans on Terrace Street can give thanks to two Dixons, a Gibbs, and maybe even Woody Allen. Not necessarily in that order.

John spitballs ideas for "a script Scarlett and I could do together" on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

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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