Thursday, October 8, 2009

Preview 2009-10 -- Pittsburgh Panthers

Too Busy for the Details?
Over the past 5 seasons Pitt has watched outstanding players come and go. Coach Dixon has repeatedly faced the challenge of replacing those players even as the program maintained a high performance level. The Panthers have missed drawing a bye seed only once in the Dixon Era. Most seasons the Panthers barely missed a beat. This season the challenge will be to replace 4 starters in a lineup that finished tied (with Louisville) for #1 in the conference and drew a #1 seed in the NCAAs. How far will the Panthers fall? In the Coach Dixon Era, #6 seems to be the floor. Prognosis -- A 2nd quartile finish.

3 Years At a Glance

If my post on Three Year Trends bears out, Panther fans can rejoice at the relatively small percentage of returning minutes, after all Pitt runs counter to the declining minutes trend -- next season should be a big (upward) jump in the team's winning percentage. Celebrations however, are probably premature; the 2010 Panthers have to replace over 2/3s of their points, field goals made and defensive rebounds, a direct reflection of their losses at the #4, #5 and #1. Point guard may be especially difficult to replace on the fly. In the past that transition has been handled almost like a relay race -- the old and new spend a season together (the replacement takes the #2 spot and works in tandem with the departing #1). In 2009 Ashton Gibbs, most likely the #2 of the future played with Levance Fields, as Travon Woodall (most likely to get the early nod) took a red shirt, and received no game experience. Front court replacements will come from the (deep) bench and incoming freshmen.

According to Pomeroy...
Overall ORtg122.22118.78118.412
Overall DRtg92.03593.35494.426
Big East ORtg117.71109.23105.55
Big East DRtg101.65104.71194.93
Four Factors -- Overall
All Off. eFG%52.94250.813552.960
All Off. TOv%18.04418.12718.232
All Off. OReb%42.0239.31237.252
All Off. FTA/FGA33.026136.118736.1177
All Def. eFG%46.55947.97946.135
All Def. TOv%18.826920.518328.5302
All Def. OReb%29.74533.218331.783
All Def. FTA/FGA30.24228.63531.263
Four Factors -- Big East
BE Off. eFG%54.6150.5651.24
BE Off. TOv%17.2417.7519.68
BE Off. OReb%41.8138.4135.96
BE Off. FTA/FGA30.31134.61242.02
BE Def. eFG%49.0750.91347.74
BE Def. TOv%17.11219.21017.013
BE Def. OReb%28.1133.81028.41
BE Def. FTA/FGA33.7831.7528.73
All Gms Cons16.94822.926019.7124
All Gms Luck-.019190+.019102+.02494

Pittsburgh excelled last season through their offense and consistency. The Panthers were consistently efficient (2nd in all of DI) for converting possessions into points. Their longstanding reputation for smothering defense took a back seat to the Sam Young's and DaJuan Blair's talent for scoring from close in. When Blair, Fields and Young were on the court together their fans could expect to see over 7 in 10 Panther possessions end on a play made by one of those 3. And if the play ended with a shot, 3 in 4 times the Pitt player who released the shot was either Blair, Fields, or Young. Achieving the same level of consistency this season will be extremely difficult, especially given that so much of the shot production has left.

For the Record...
Big East1530.8331080.5561240.750
Post Season?NCAA/Rnd 4NCAA/Rnd 2NCAA/Rnd 3

Many anticipated a step back in 2007-08 since Pitt had to replace Aaron Gray's low post presence on the fly. DaJuan Blair stepped in nicely, and it took injuries to Lavance Fields and Mike Cook to derail an otherwise promising season. Coach Dixon had to cobble together a back court and patch over a suddenly thin wing. Considering that 40% of the Panther starting line up was on the beach by mid January, a 27-10 record with a 1st round victory in the NCAA (and a Big East Tournament Championship) could not be too disappointing. The Panthers were poised to make noise in 2008-09. And they did, sharing the regular season Championship honors with Louisville, and running to the Elite Eight in the NCAAs -- their deepest run since ??.

The Panther's Nucleus
Coach Jamie Dixon biggest task this season? Priority items will be to mold Pitt's new front court, manned in large part with entering freshmen (if not starters, then frequent subs in the rotation). Running tryouts for the point guard spot will be high on the list too. Dixon will have several returning back court players to review, along with a red shirt freshman and a transfer. Then there are the wing positions...

On Offense

Dixon (when he completes rehabbing a broken foot), Wanamaker and Gibbs will supply some outside and inside scoring. All are guards though, not especially adept at rebounding and, Wanamaker (a Phiily guard naturally) aside, contact-shy. McGhee and Robinson will need help generating offense in the low post/paint points.

On Defense
Jermaine Dixon61.59.213.714.03.03.4
Brad Wanamaker47.417.
Gilbert Brown43.110.810.920.41.61.5
Ashton Gibbs25.95.413.719.30.30.8
Gary McGhee14.413.50.731.24.10.6
Nasir Robinson12.912.613.430.12.32.2

Significant Additions
Coach Dixon went shopping for his guards last season and came back with Jermaine Dixon (a transfer), Ashton Gibbs, a sophomore who is expected to move over to the point this season and Travon Woodall, a red shirt freshman. To this trio (plus junior Brad Wannamaker) Coach Dixon added Chase Adams, a 5-11 senior transfer from Centenary College, who moved over in August 2009. Adams will be available immediately because Centenary voted to move down to DIII early in this off season. Adams compiled an outstanding ORtg (113.6 -- see Ken Pomeroy's Scout Page for Centenary College), due to a combination of good shooting (49.7% conversion rate for his 2s, and an outstanding 39.8% accuracy from beyond the arc to yield a 54.4 eFG%) and an astounding 31.0 Ast% (good for a #69 ranking). Adams' rating was helped by a very low turnover rate (15.1%). His PPWS last season was 1.15. Boasting an FTR% of 42.2, unusual for point guards, but typical for a Pitt pg. Adams should fit right in. Coach Dixon will have him for a year. It will be interesting to see how quickly he makes the rotation.

This season he looked for front court players to replace Young and Blair, and came brought in a very strong class of Dante Taylor, a 6-9 power forward out of Maryland (National Christian Academy), small forward Lamar Patterson, 6-5 220lb native Pennsylvanian by way of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, NJ, Talib Zanna, a 6-9 220lb center out of Bishop McNamara in Maryland and Texas native JJ Richardson, another power forward who measures 6-8 and weighs in at 238 lbs. Taylor and Patterson have drawn some national recognition; Taylor earning a spot on the McDonald's All-American team, and Patterson ranked in the Top 100 by several scouting services. Zanna however flew under the national radar until the summer of 2008 recruiting period, when he dazzled fans (and coaches) at a few HS tournaments.

Explode If...
1. All of the new players -- particularly Adams, Taylor and Zanna -- master the learning curve quickly. Pitt's approach to the game, introduced by Ben Howland and continued by Jamie Dixon, has been to control the pace and flow by dominating the boards, scoring with consistency (inside and outside, but mostly inside) as they grind down their opposition. Panther fans describe the defense as a "boa constrictor" on their opponent's offense.
2. Gilbert Brown finally has the season Pitt fans (and the media) have been predicting...for the past 2 years. Sam Young has moved on, now it's Brown's time. Brown is only one of several well regarded high school bballers, projected to standout in the Big East, but have coasted once they arrive at Pitt. Brad Wannamaker and Nasir Robinson, along with Brown, have a good opportunity this season to take the reins of the team.

Implode If...
A good many mainstays in the offense and defense graduated or left for the NBA. Pittsburgh lost 4 of their 5 starters, a heavy burden to overcome, and an opportunity to hand down traditions and attitudes, lost. True the conference in general is down, but the rigors of an 18 game schedule, to be cleared in about 9+ weeks, punish the inattentive or lacksidasical learner.
1. Point guard is an important position for the Panthers. The point has to distribute, penetrate and step back and nail the three, depending on the situation. Good judgement is a not "a plus", it is a pre-requisite. Gibbs had an understudy year with Fields, but if it was not enough, and Adams does not fit in quickly, the Panthers will struggle.
2. A dominant #5 is necessary if the Panthers are to control access to the lane and the low post. Gray and Kendall (and Young) stepped into the vacancy left by Taft and Troutman. Blair stepped in seamlessly when Gray graduated. Zanna and Taylor will have to do the same.

Crucial Run/Bellweather Games
The CBE Classic gives Pitt the opportunity to warmup against Binghamton & Eastern Kentucky as a preparation for Wichita State and either Texas or Iowa. The margin of victory (or not) versus Binghamton and Eastern Kentucky will give a hint about Wichita State and beyond. Faced with a slate of traditional local rivals (Dusquesne, Robert Morris), a rebuilding Indiana in the Jimmy V Classic (Madison Square Garden, NYC) and a handful of mid-majors (mostly at home -- the Peterson Center), the CBE is the best barometer on the state of the Panther team going into the Big East season.

The good news for the Panthers is they will host DePaul at home to open the Big East season. What the scheduler gives however, he also takes away -- the Panthers then hit the road for their next three games. Their trail takes the big cats through Syracuse, then Cincinnati, before heading into Connecticut before heading back home for a two game homestand against Louisville and Georgetown. And then on the road again, to the Rock, where they will play Seton Hall. That is one brutal six game run, as all six of those teams are projected to finish in the top half of the conference. the road games in particular will be extremely challenging. A 4-3 record (a home win versus DePaul is a given...if the Panthers drop that game they are in for a very, very long season) would be very good news to the Pitt fan-base. The Panthers have another tough five game run over the last 2½ weeks of February. They finish a two game homestand against West Virginia (the 1st game, against NEC member Robert Morris should be a win), then go to Milwaukee to face Marquette, return home to face Villanova and then take to the road again to face Notre Dame, then St. John's. They will need the home advantage against West Virginia and Villanova, as those two are expected to top the conference. Notre Dame may or may not contend for a bye spot this season, but irrespective the Irish play much better at home, so even a middling Notre Dame could be difficult for a young(er) Panther squad. The Johnnies expect to make a big upward move this season. A 3-2 or better record through this stretch would probably put Pitt in the NCAAs. An 8-8 record or better going into their last two games, a last homestand before heading out to Madison Square Garden and the BET, would most likely spell a 10-8 conference record as the Panthers face Providence then Rutgers, both should be wins.

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