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December 18, 2008, 11:25 AM ET
Pay Pitt the Compliment of Accuracy

by John Gasaway

Pitt clubbed Siena 79-66 last night in Pittsburgh and, as the saying goes, it wasn’t that close. Only some heroics from the visitors after the last TV timeout made the final score appear this respectable. In truth the Panthers put an eight-point game out of reach with an 11-0 run coming out of halftime.

That may sound like just another garden variety non-conference tune-up for an elite team playing at home. Keep in mind, though, that the Saints are the preseason MAAC favorites and return the bulk of the minutes from a team that thumped Vanderbilt by 21 points in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament.

Pitt was notably unimpressed, as DeJuan Blair did his best Sean-May-in-2005 impression and recorded a 21-16 dub-dub on 10-of-14 shooting from the field. It must have been frustrating for Siena to see Blair’s reaction to their aggressive and textbook double-teams: he would simply shoot–and score–over them.

The 6-7 Blair is commonly portrayed as a round mound of rebound but in truth that’s just part of his arsenal. He shoots often and effectively, making 64 percent of his twos thus far, albeit against uneven competition. Most strikingly, he plays the 5 yet records steals at a higher rate than any of his teammates. Blair stands out, and that’s not easy to do on a team with featured-scorer Sam Young and assist-hoarding point guard Levance Fields. This is an outstanding offense, one that ranked among the top three in the Big East last year and looks just as efficient this year.

So please explain to me why so many people, most especially last night’s announcers, still insist on viewing Pitt as an all-defense no-offense team? (”Sometimes it seems like they expend so much effort on defense they have trouble scoring.”) One of the things about sports that really interests me is the incorrigibly durable power of branding seen within its precincts. Highly-paid MBAs would kill for their companies’ detergents or razors to possess the same kind of talismanic hold on perceptions that college basketball teams exhibit.

Take Pitt. I don’t mean the team I’ve just described, necessarily. I mean “Pitt,” the brand. What comes to mind? Rugged, physical teams, players from NYC, Carl Krauser, grind it out, tough D, annual success in the Big East tournament, etc.

Make no mistake, that perception was earned, not fabricated. As it happens, however, it no longer accords with reality….

Big East Defense, 2008 (conference games only, points allowed per possession)

  1. Louisville (0.91)
  2. Georgetown (0.92)
  3. Marquette (0.98)
  4. West Virginia (0.99)
  5. Villanova (1.00)
  6. Syracuse (1.02)
  7. St. John’s (1.02)
  8. Connecticut (1.02)
  9. Cincinnati (1.03)
  10. Notre Dame (1.04)
  11. Pitt (1.05)
  12. Rutgers (1.05)
  13. Providence (1.08)
  14. Seton Hall (1.09)
  15. South Florida (1.09)
  16. DePaul (1.12)

Last year Pitt’s D was equivalent to that played by Rutgers, and inferior to Cincinnati’s or St. John’s. Big East opponents made a lot of twos against this physical and athletic but nevertheless not very tall defense. If the Panthers are a rugged defensive team, so are the Scarlet Knights, to say nothing of the Bearcats and the Johnnies.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. I’m on the record as saying this offense can win Jamie Dixon a lot of games. Let’s just be sure we give credit where it’s due. Doing so may well require that we adjust the Pitt “brand” that we carry around in our minds.

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