Pittsburgh of the Big East versus Memphis of Conference USA.
The legitimate No. 1 seed versus the "great pretender."
That makes Pitt a no-brainer pick to win this game, correct?
Not so fast, ladies and gentlemen. This would be one knock-down, drag-out fight.
Really, it would.
The Big East is known for its rough-and-tumble play and physical style, and that has been the case since the league’s inception in the early 80's. From Georgetown to Syracuse to Pittsburgh to Connecticut, the Big East has always been known for a grinding, grueling style of play. They're generally low on style points, but big on wins.
The Tigers of C-USA are best known for the "Memphis Attack," a fresh offensive style based on spacing and ball movement. Memphis teams have the reputation of being inveterate run-and-gun specialists.
Of course, reputations can be wrong.
Jamie Dixon’s reputation is that of a defensive-minded coach. This, of course, would be perfectly consistent with the reputation of the Big East as a whole, but it would also be misleading.
In the past four seasons, since Ken Pomeroy has been keeping his offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, Pittsburgh has never finished higher than 21st in the final adjusted defensive ranking—and that was in 2006. They have actually finished as low as 54th just last year.
That makes Pittsburgh "borderline elite" in defensive rating. "Very good" or "outstanding" would be a more accurate description (with top-20 being considered “elite”).
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh offense may be considered legitimately elite, ranking 12th in 2005-06, 12th in ‘06-'07, eighth in ‘07-'08, and second this season. Only North Carolina can claim to be better (10th, third, first, and first) over the same span.
Memphis also bucks the assumed trends, but in an opposite fashion.
The Tiger offense has been just "good" (though sometimes outstanding) over the last four years, ranking 29th, 25th, fourth, and (this season) 37th since the 2005-06 season.
Their defense has been undeniably elite, ranking sixth, 11th, fourth, and first in the same interval. Only UCLA is close, and they had a precipitous drop (3rd, 2nd, 7th, and 47th) this season.
This year’s Panthers group is a gritty, tough team that has beaten a fine UConn team twice. Overall, they're a veteran bunch, as they start three seniors, a junior, and a sophomore; all have been through the wars and have tasted defeat enough to know how to focus on a game plan.
Leading the charge have been fourth-years Levance Fields and Sam Young and second-year DeJuan Blair.
Fields is a 5’11”, 190-pound fire-hydrant type with tremendous instincts and leadership ability. He averages 10.9 points and a stellar 7.6 assists per outing. There is not a more valuable point guard in the nation. He is not a reliable scorer, but with Fields and Blair, he does not have to be. He is bullish and strong, and he penetrates just as much on will as he does with skill; he simply will not let you keep him out of the paint.
His fellow senior, Sam Young, is an explosive scorer, leading the team with an average of 18.8 PPG while pulling down 6.1 RPG. The No. 1 forward in the country according to Rivals.com, Young is a quick slasher with an ever-improving jumper and face-up game.
Plus, Young remains a superlative defender with his length and amazing lateral quickness, and he has few peers when it comes to blocking shots when he gets beaten off the drive. He should have drawn more votes as Big East MVP.
And finally, what can be said about Blair that hasn’t already been printed? The Big East Co-MVP is simply a beast on the low block. At 6’7”, 265 lbs., he is the type of skilled wide-body that does not come along everyday. He is relentless on the offensive glass and averages 18.6 rebounds per 40 minutes, far and away the best in D-I hoops.
Then again, Blair leaves much to be desired on the defensive side of the ball, in part due to his relatively short stature and lack of lateral speed.
Jermaine Dixon and Tyrell Biggs (not to be confused with the boxer) are serviceable role players. Dixon, in particular, can hurt an opponent that leaves him alone while doubling Blair and/or Young.
In general, Pittsburgh is a rugged, mentally-tough squad that does not beat itself. Anyone expecting a Jamie Dixon-coached team to make a bunch of mistakes is setting themselves up for failure.
Memphis feasts on teams that get impatient and take foolish chances. This allows the Tigers to make cheap, easy steals and get into transition, where each player excels. Every single member of the Tiger starting five—Tyreke Evans, Doneal Mack, Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, and Shawn Taggart—runs the floor exceptionally well and can finish on the break.
In order to win this conflict, the big, long Memphis guards (Evans and Mack) would have to prevent Fields from driving at will. Levance is not the fastest point guard (not at all in the mold of Ty Lawson, for instance), so this might play into the Tigers’ hands.
Senior stopper Antonio Anderson would have to shadow Young. This is the type of head-to-head that Anderson has typically fared well with. Anderson is just as quick and just as physical as Young is. A clash between the two would make for a fascinating duel; they would likely cancel each other out, both offensively and defensively.
The biggest key would be how Memphis fared in the post.
Blair is a bull down low, the type of low-block operator that gives Shawn Taggart fits. The Tigers would probably have to bracket him with Taggart and Dozier when Pitt is on offense—which on the face of it seems to be overkill for a pair of near-seven footers.
However, this strategy would tend to neutralize the one player who could inflict the most damage on the Tiger lineup, forcing the pedestrian Biggs to make big plays. Though he's capable, there is no doubt that he is far less potent than Blair, one of the most devastating interior forces in the country.
Meanwhile, Tiger freshman point guard Tyreke Evans, in addition to slowing down Fields, would be entrusted with limiting turnovers when Memphis had the ball. The Tigers would likely hammer the ball down into the post, both in an effort to tire Blair and to draw him into silly fouls.
Robert Dozier would need to step up big and take advantage of the fact that the Panthers (like most anyone else at this level) have no one who can match his length and skills. Taggart would need to stay on the blocks and exploit Blair’s lack of defensive prowess.
Ironically (given the teams’ reputations), Memphis would do well to grind this game out, keeping the score in the 60's or even 50's. As much as the Tigers excel in the open floor, Fields, Young and Blair are equally as effective in a run-and-gun game.
The Tiger D outshines the Panthers’ defensive prowess, but the so-called Memphis Attack is not as consistently effective as the Pittsburgh offense.
This would be a match-up for the ages. The team that made the fewest mistakes would win.