Thursday, October 14, 2010

2010-11 Preview -- Pittsburgh Panthers

Too Busy for the Details?
The 2009 Panthers made me a Jamie Dixon believer. Picking the Panthers to finish in hte second quartile in 2010 was a positive expression of faith, or so I thought. The 2011 edition has four returning starters, three very experienced rotation players and a boatload of promising newcomers. Returning players will be pushed by the freshmen early. Keeping everyone happy may be Coach Dixon's toughest job.  Prognosis -- A 1st quartile finish.

3 Years At a Glance

A #3 finish in conference while returning only 42.5% of the minutes and so little of the rebounding is surprising for a Big East team, but a testimony to the resilience of the Pittsburgh program under Coach Dixon. The Panthers can stockpile and develop the talented stream of recruits they attract each year without regressing much in regular season play. The Panthers have won the conference regular season and tournaments under Coach Dixon. The next hurdle to clear is the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.

According to Pomeroy...
BE Pace62.31666.8964.212
BE Off Eff.109.36117.71109.23
BE Def Eff.103.45101.65104.711
BE Def eFG%46.3249.0750.913
BE Def TOv%15.31517.11219.210
BE Def Reb%66.0771.9166.210
BE Def FTR%35.6633.7831.75

Certainly in keeping with the offensive philosophy, but perhaps consistent with the staff's preference for larger, longer front court players, Pitt executes one of the more deliberate offenses in the conference. While #16 is on the low side (that spot is usually reserved for perimeter-oriented DePaul, Georgetown or West Virginia under John Beilein) it may be attributed to evolving roles in the offense and many opponents' difficulty developing scoring opportunities against Pitt's defense. The revelation is that Pittsburgh does not have an "elite" defense. Pace plays a strong role in opponents' low scores. Though he used the Atlantic 10 conference to frame his point, contributor Ray Floriani illustrated in his article over at College Chalktalk that the differential between a team's offensive and defensive efficiency often determines where it ranks within the conference. A point Pittsburgh makes year in and year out. Defensive efficiency may serve as Pitt's "floor" while their offense might be their "ceiling", but it is the difference that determines their rank. And they consistently rank in the upper division, often among the best in the Big East.

The defensive numbers are not, as I expected, dominating at all. Their defensive rebounding rate in 2009 hinted at how tough they could be at that end of the floor, but taken as a whole over the three seasons, there is no single signature statistic that identifies a "Pittsburgh Defense".

For the Record...
Big East1350.7221530.8331080.556
Post Season?NCAA Rnd #2NCAA Rnd #4NCAA Rnd #2

The Panthers' Nucleus
Coach Jamie Dixon's biggest task this season will be keeping everyone healthy and focused on the staff's objectives. Freshman season is over for the front court, time to see how good they really can be. Gary McGhee is a solid presence whose lack of speed will not throw Pittsburgh's offensive or defensive systems out of synch. Coach Dixon's style of play places a premium on ball control, pace and physical play. Fans fondly refer to the Panther defense as a boa constictor, and McGhee and Taylor can guarantee that the lane will be crowded and closed to most half court sets and pesky 6-0 guards who venture into the lane.

On Offense
Ashton Gibbs84.7116.221.426.
Brad Wanamaker79.6105.824.721.
Nasir Robinson61.
Gary McGhee59.1109.316.014.162.312.11.2453.6
Travon Woodall49.493.119.617.344.51.60.9629.7
Gilbert Brown39.3110.923.223.556.04.71.1950.3
Dante Taylor34.1115.016.214.458.416.11.1868.5

McGhee will never be the #1 option on offense, but the junior center will always get his share of points from putbacks and the occasional low post entry pass. Dante Taylor is also an exceptional offensive rebounder, and will complement McGhee well as a second, (slightly) speedier low post presence. Both are very efficient, in part because they know when to take their shot and when to pass the ball out to the perimeter. Gilbert Brown has been a four (five?) year enigma for the Panthers. Athletic and talented, between injuries, academic problems and inconsistency his flashes have brought smiles to the staff, media and fans, while his game-to-game level of play brings head shakes and heartburn. This is his last chance to impress, and Pittsburgh could have a 38 or 39 game season if he does.

On Defense
Ashton Gibbs84.77.711.810.00.31.4
Brad Wanamaker79.614.031.321.30.92.3
Nasir Robinson61.016.013.420.91.41.0
Gary McGhee59.120.34.921.77.50.6
Travon Woodall49.411.131.827.21.11.7
Gilbert Brown39.310.917.917.91.01.3
Dante Taylor34.115.41.814.84.42.0

Areas for improvement for guards/wings Travon Woodall and Bradley Wanamaker include turnovers. Each gets enough possesions (19.6 and 24.7 respectively) that turnover rates above 20% can drag down Pitt's offensive efficiency. J.J. Richardson, a 6-7, 235 pound forward and walk-on senior Nick Rivers round out the returning players.

Significant Additions
This year's entering class features recruits at both back court spots and the wing. All are very good, but they, along with a handful of red shirt players from 2010, will be have to be integrated into an already deep rotation. Among the players entering, J.J. Moore might be the most higly regarded. The 6-5, 200 pound wing who prepped at the South Kent School in Connecticut will see minutes behind Gil Brown. Moore scored the team-high as a starter against the Ireland National Team last August. A good start to his career as a Panther. Point guard-in-waiting is Isaiah Epps, a 6-2, 160 pound lead guard out of Plainfield, NJ by way of Hargrave Military Academy did not take the Ireland Tour last summer, but he should definitely see minutes in the back court roatation in 2011. 6-7, 200 pound forward Aron Nwankwo from Baltimore, Maryland and 6-4, 200 pound sg Cameron Wright from Cleveland, Ohio also made the Ireland Tour and took advantage of the structured practice and exhibition games. Both should see a few minutes in the early season. If Pittsburgh's Ireland Tour last August is any indication, the 6-9 225 pound red shirt freshmen Talib Zanna and his wing teammate Lamar Patterson, a 6-5 220 pound wing from Lancaster, Pennsylvania by way of St. Benedict's in New Jersey, will definitely see regular minutes in the front court rotation this season.

Explode If...
Define explode. Regular season conference title? And Big East Tournament Champion? A #1 seed in the NCAA's? Elite Eight? Final Four?
1. The team is deep enough to sustain an injury/absence or two from just about any position in the rotation and not miss a beat (almost, see below). The squad has to practice and play hard, but play together.

Implode If...
1. With a very talented and deep squad, the problem is finding a role and playing time for all of the important parts. Friction between the younger and older members of the squad could undermine squad cohesion. The staff will have to look for the signs and defuse early.
2. The team has been identified early and widely as "the team to beat", both in the conference and nationally. Unlike 2010, they will sneak up on no one. Can the team adjust to life continuously in the limelight? The expectations can be difficult to meet sometimes, and different teams react in different ways.
3. Depth is good, but the two positions where an extended absence of the starter could prove to be relatively more difficult to overcome immediately would be at the point where Ashton Gibbs starts and the low post where Gary McGhee rules. The team is well-stocked at both positions, but Gibbs and McGhee have emerged as leaders. Replacements can make up the stats, but developing the leadership characteristics from either the replacements or other members of the squad (Brown? Wannamaker?) may take a bit longer.

Crucial Run/Bellweather Games
If the Panthers are indeed in the hunt for the Big East title this season they will start fast and keep going. As pod hosts for the 2K Sports Classic/Coaches vs Cancer Invitational, Pitt should, despite the fact that advancing to Madison Square Garden is automatic, sweep the three game preliminary set. Of the three, Rhode Island will be the most challenging opponent, as the Rams are projected to finish in the upper division of the A-10 Conference this season. Two BCS opponents, Maryland followed by either Illinois or Texas (most likely the 'Horns) will be waiting for Pitt in MSG. The top team in the Big East should be able to take any combination of the three. Coach Dixon's squad drew Tennessee in the Big East-SEC Challenge. The Panther will host the Vols, on December 11 in downtown Pittsburgh, as the featured matchup for a double header that includes a Rutgers-Auburn game. If Villanova faces Tennessee in the NIT Tip-Off, analysts will have a nice common opponent comparison to chew on in the month before conference play commences. Unlike earlier seasons, Coach Dixon will clear the traditional local rivalry games (Duquesne and Robert Morris) before the start of conference play. 12-0 going into their Connecticut game on 12/27 ought to have Pittsburgh in the AP Top 5. 11-1 might bruise Panther pride, but would no impact on the conference race or title prospects (regular or BET). A 9-3 record (or worse, given the competition) would bring a torrent of "What's Wrong With Pittsburgh/the Big East?" stories.

The schedule maker dealt Pittsburgh South Florida, Villanova and Backyard Brawl rival West Virginia as 2011 mirrors. The trio may be one of the tougher draws based on last season's Pythagorean Winning Percentage (PWP), but the Panthers should log no worse than a 4-2 record (sweep USF, draw with 'Nova & WVU). A 4 game run that stretchs through 10 days starting in the second week in January, should provide an early hint about the Panthers' prospects. Pitt opens the run by hosting Marquette, then takes a road trip to DC for a game with Georgetown and returns to Steel Town for two games in 48 hours, versus Seton Hall and Syracuse. Georgetown has been previewed as a First Quartile team by most publications, the road game, set in that context, and with four days of preparation, should be even more difficult. A 4-0 record through that sequence, coming on the heels of a 2-0 start (Connecticut and Providence) would definitely put Pitt in the conversation about #1 seeds (for the NCAA). If the Panthers can break even on a two game road trip through Morgantown and Philadelphia in early February they should be in a good position to close the season with no worse than the top see in the Big East Conference. Their 2/12 date with Villanova, the backend of that road trip, will be the featured event in ESPN's College GameDay Series. Should things go badly on the Mainline, Pittsburgh will have the opportunity to return the favor in their season-closing match with Villanova at the Petersen on March 5. Split that series with Villanova and have those two end the season #1/#2 in conference and the ink and electronic media will tout the probable rubber match in the Garden a week later. And both are probably looking at #1 seeds on Selection Sunday.

Further Reading
I tracked player and team efficiencies during the Panthers' Ireland Tour last month, and provided a few post game breakdowns of the team's performance. Only the first game box score gave a hint about how much time each player logged, so it was the only game where I could devevelop possession-based statistics for each player who logged time in the game...
The Panthers' first win over the Irish Natioal Team
Pittsburgh's win over a collection of players from four Southern Ireland professional clubs.
Pittsburh's second win over the Irish National Team
The Panthers' win over the Dart Killister club. Dart Killister is one of the better teams in the Ireland Premier League. After rolling over the first three teams, Pitt found the last three teams a bit more challenging.
Pittsburgh's win over the Melbourne Tiger, an Australian professional team in Ireland for a summer festival and tune-up for their season.
The Panthers' win over the English National Team. An odd game statistically, as the English shot more efficiently and got to the line more than the Panthers. The game difference came down to turnovers and rebounding, two areas where Pitt really separated themselves from the Brits.

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