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January 5, 2010

Diametrically-opposed surprises: Pitt & Carolina

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:50 am

Mondays are usually relatively sleepy in college hoops terms, but last night a couple of final scores actually succeeded in deflecting a modicum of attention away from the gadget-play and marriage-proposal engine that is Boise State football.

First Pitt won at Cincinnati, 74-71. Coming off their 82-72 win on Saturday at Syracuse, the Panthers now stand at 3-0 in the Big East, with two of their wins having come on the road against quality opponents. Not bad for a group that was supposed to take a step back this season after having said goodbye to DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, and Levance Fields.

Actually, even at 3-0, they have taken a step back. Jamie Dixon‘s surprising Panthers are outscoring Big East opponents by 0.13 points per trip. That’s outstanding but even that level of play takes a back seat to the Blair-fueled 2009 team, which was 0.16 points better than their conference foes on each possession they played.

Speaking of that 2009 team, I spent the balance of last year yelling and waving my arms in an effort to convince people that the old Pitt stereotypes (rugged D, points scored with more brute force than skill) no longer applied and that this was one incredible offense. Indeed it was, but this year it might be time to move one step back toward the good old Panther preconceptions of yore.

You could make a case that this 2010 team is comprised of a strong defense that for the past three games has been momentarily joined by an offense that is hitting shots like crazy (e.g., sinking 45 percent of their threes in conference play). Sophomore Ashton Gibbs has said thank you very much for the available minutes and rather quietly emerged as one of the more impressive pure shooters you’ll find anywhere. For the year Gibbs is hitting 94 percent of his free throws (against the Bearcats last night he went 10-of-11) and 41 percent of his threes while taking the bulk of the shots for this offense. Pitt’s not as good as they were last year, but right now they’re much better than expected.

North Carolina, conversely, is not meeting expectations at the moment, as seen in their 82-79 loss in OT on the road last night to College of Charleston. This bit of man-bites-dog can be traced to: 1) a spirited rally by the Cougars in the final four minutes of regulation (keyed by eight straight points from Andrew Goudelock); 2) the absence of two UNC starters (Marcus Ginyard and Will Graves); and 3) the person in Chapel Hill who had the bright idea of playing a road game against College of Charleston. Keep in mind that Jim Boeheim gets yelled at every year without fail for keeping his Syracuse team in the safe cocoon of the Carrier Dome (albeit with occasional forays to neutral floors) until conference play drags his Orangemen kicking and screaming downstate. Well, right now Boeheim looks like Jim Caldwell to Roy WilliamsBill Belichick.

Occasionally when a mid-major brings down a blue-chip opponent it falls to yours truly to note that This is Not a Surprise because the plucky underdogs are actually very good at X and the big-name team is vulnerable there, etc. This is not one of those occasions. The outcome here officially qualifies as a Surprise, even if UNC was down two starters. To be sure, Bobby Cremins has a fine team on his hands but the Cougars wouldn’t appear to be the SoCon favorites this year. More to the point one might have thought this team would have been beaten to a pulp on its defensive glass by the Tar Heels. In fact that is exactly what happened–and Carolina lost anyway because they couldn’t make twos (26-of-65) and didn’t try threes (1-of-6).

Funny thing is, the Tar Heels’ problems in this game do not necessarily loom largest as their likely problems going forward. If I’m a Carolina fan I’m more worried about turnovers the next eight weeks than I am about shots going in. (Shots from the field, that is. This is one mediocre team at the line. Where have you gone, Psycho-T?) And while Williams’ team faces a relatively kind intro to ACC play (four of their first six contests are at the Dean Dome and the two road games are at Clemson and NC State), we are now 14 games into what was supposed to be this young team’s learning curve. In their 14th game the team learned about improbable upsets on the road.          

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