The top seeded Pitt Panthers will enter Thursday night’s Sweet 16 match up vs. the No. 4 seed Xavier Musketeers, having already achieved an unprecedented level of success this year.
This season has seen the Panthers earn a No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history. The senior class of Tyrell Biggs, Levance Fields and Sam Young have become the winningest class in school history.
Jamie Dixon has set an NCAA record for wins by a head coach in his first six seasons. The only thing left for Pitt to achieve this season is NCAA tournament glory.
While this will be Pitt’s fifth trip to the Sweet 16 this decade, they have not advanced to the Elite Eight since 1974 and they have not made the Final Four since 1941. This year’s team is as good as any recent Pitt squad. Will this be the year the Panthers finally break through?
The Xavier Musketeers are no strangers to Tournament success. Xavier advanced all the way to the Elite Eight last season before they were bounced by UCLA. All five of the current Musketeer starters were vital members of last year’s squad, providing valuable experience that has been a staple for the program.
Anybody who has played in a Thanksgiving Day Turkey Bowl or a backyard basketball game is well aware that familiarity breeds contempt.
Xavier coach Sean Miller is very familiar with Pitt, having played point guard for the Panthers from 1987 through 1992. While a win on Thursday is more important to Miller because of where it will put his program—on the precipice of a their first-ever Final Four—the added plot-twist of the former First Team All-Conference point guard matching up with his Alma mater thickens the plot significantly.
Miller’s confrontation with his past is one of the many intriguing subplots to this Sweet 16. Here to preview the action are Bleacher Report writers Doug Tifft and Paul Sievers.
Pitt is not the same team when DeJuan Blair is in foul trouble. How should Xavier go about trying to get Blair in foul trouble and how should Pitt go about protecting their big man?
Doug Tifft: Everyone knows that when you take on Pittsburgh, the key to success is getting Blair in foul trouble. It is assumed that the best way to go about this is to have a transcendent post player who can isolate Blair on the defensive end and force him to foul. This really is not the case, however, as Blair is strong enough to play excellent position defense on any interior offensive player, forcing shooters a step or two further out, and then grabbing the rebound after a missed shot.
Blair will rarely pick up a whistle underneath the basket on defense, but Xavier may be able to get the big guy in foul trouble in situations where they can attack his mental lapses. One situation is in the high ball-screen the Musketeers routinely utilize in the early stages of their offense.
Xavier likes to have either Dante Jackson or Terrell Holloway to come off of a screen from centers Jason Love and Kenny Frease, thus bringing the opposing team’s center out to the perimeter to defend.
Pittsburgh likes to defend this by jumping Blair out to impede the progress of the ballhandler. Blair, however, will often get lazy in this situation, and attempt to slow the ballhandler with only half his body, instead, of fully sliding in front of the point guard. If Jackson and Holloway are able to attack Blair’s half-hearted effort in this area, and pick up a few quick fouls on the perimeter, the entire shape of the game will change.
Another opportunity for Xavier to force Blair to the bench is by simply finding him on the defensive end, and boxing him out. Blair is vulnerable to committing silly over the back fouls, and Xavier has the size up front to contend—maybe even dominate—the glass with Love, Frease, Derrick Brown and Jamel McLean.
Xavier has a history of getting star-studded big men in foul trouble in the NCAA Tournament, as Sean Miller installed an expert gameplan in 2007 to pick up four quick fouls on Greg Oden when Xavier nearly pulled a second-round upset of the Buckeyes. If Miller can duplicate such a situation with Blair on Thursday, the Musketeers have a chance to pull off the upset.
Paul Sievers: There’s one issue with trying to get a box out on Blair. The only way you can do that is by playing behind him on defense. Coaches have to pick their poison with Blair. If they try to defend him without fronting him, it’s too easy to feed him in the post. He’s so wide and carves out so much space that there is no way to deny him the ball. If you try fronting him you will deny the entry pass, but then Blair is in good position for any offensive board.
The only way to draw an offensive foul on him is to throw as many bodies as possible at him when the shot goes up, and hope he goes over the back on someone. Of course, doing that leaves Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs with an unimpeded path to the boards.
Defensively, I’m not sure there is an obvious solution to the problem of protecting Blair. Xavier ranks 12th in three-point shooting in all the land, so playing a zone is completely out of the question. It would also be foolish to not have him hedge on the high pick-and-roll for two reasons.
First, he’s been doing it all year. Now is not the time to get away from what got you to the Sweet 16. Second, his hands are so quick and he can make so many good things happen on that play.
Against UConn, Pitt's Jamie Dixon put Tyrell Biggs on Hasheem Thabeet in the first half to protect Blair. That won’t work against Xavier, who has so many guys that do a great job of drawing contact. I don’t think there is anything Pitt can do from a tactical standpoint to protect Blair on defense. The big fella is going to have to commit to playing defense with his feet and not reaching, or else he’ll be spending extensive minutes seated to Jamie Dixon’s left.
In the NCAA tournament, the team that controls the tempo is usually the team that ends up advancing. How will each team try to make sure the game is played at their pace?
Doug Tifft: Everyone in the Xavier locker room knows that they are never going to win a game where they are forced to outscore the opponent in a shootout. They simply do not have the individual offensive talent in the halfcourt set to put gaudy numbers on the scoreboard.
To keep the game within reach, Xavier will have to walk the ball up the floor and get into set plays on offense. In such situations, Xavier’s offense is much more effective, as players are able to come off of screens for open looks as opposed to having to create their own shot.
Slowing the pace down will also benefit the Musketeers on the defensive end, where their packline scheme can force the Panthers into perimeter shots, and deny points in the paint. Being able to set up the defense will also help to alleviate the on-ball difficulties that Jackson and Holloway will inevitably have with Fields.
If Fields drives by his defender into the lane late in the shot clock, a properly positioned Xavier defense will be able to help out and deny an easy look. The same cannot be said of Fields’ capabilities in the open court.
To stem such a break by the Panthers, Xavier has to limit Blair’s ability to hit the glass. Without Blair quickly turning defense into offense with an outlet pass to Fields, Xavier can stop the Panthers break before it even starts.
Paul Sievers: These teams have both played at a similar pace all season. Xavier averages 67 possessions per game while Pitt averages 66. One of Pitt’s strengths this year has been their ability to match any style of play.
They can play a full court run-and-gun type game or they can play a slowed down style. What style they play against Xavier will depend completely on the health of Levance Fields, who is nursing a groin injury.
If Levance is anywhere close to full strength, then I think Pitt will look to try to get out in transition and speed up the game.
Xavier’s half court defense is so good because of their length. They have height at all five positions. That makes it easy for them to close and get a hand in the face of the shooters.
Where Pitt has an advantage is speed. Any steals or long rebounds they get will become easy points for the Panthers if Levance is physically able to push the pace.
This year’s Pitt team has been better in the open court than any Panther team this decade. This is mostly because of Levance Fields’ decision making. The senior’s assist-to-turnover ratio is almost 4 to 1 this season. If Levance can run, Pitt will run, and it will be to their benefit. If not, Pitt will play half court offense and do their best to contend with Xavier’s tenacious defense.
Pitt has struggled with turnovers in the first two rounds while turnovers have been Xavier’s Achilles’ heal all season. What adjustments must each team make to win the turnover battle?
Doug Tifft: Miller accepted at the beginning of the season that he would never pick up a stat sheet and see that his team had more assists than turnovers, as he was starting a 6’5” shooting guard—Jackson—at the point guard spot and bringing a true freshman off of the bench—Holloway—to relieve him.
While the miscues have tended to pile up at times, Xavier has been able to keep possession of the ball when they are able to get into their halfcourt sets. When Jackson and Holloway have a set destination to deliver the basketball to, as opposed to improvising in transition, they are much more effective.
The same can be said of the often turnover-prone frontcourt reserves Kenny Frease and Jamel McLean.
If Xavier is able to walk the ball up the floor and get into a set play on the majority of their possessions then they are in a much better position to pull off this upset.
Turnovers will happen for this bunch of Musketeers. The key, however, is reducing their impact by limiting the opportunities for the Panthers to score on the other end of the court. While Xavier does not turn opponents over regularly, they do regularly force teams to use up the majority of the shot clock. With Pitt forced to run through their entire offensive set, there is more opportunity for a tipped pass, mental lapse, or overanxious play to cause a Panther turnover.
Paul Sievers: After averaging 16 turnovers in the first two games of the tournament, Pitt will be relieved to face a team that struggles with forcing turnovers. Xavier ranks 274th in America when it comes to forcing turnovers. Don’t expect Pitt to play their third straight game with a high turnover total.
I don’t think Pitt really needs to make any adjustments offensively. As John Wooden would say, they just need to “be quick but not hurry”. As long as Sam Young and Brad Wanamaker can avoid making more poor decisions than usual, Pitt will be fine.
I might try putting defensive specialist Jermaine Dixon on Dante Jackson to see how many bad decisions Dixon can force out of the young point guard. No matter who Jermaine Dixon ends up guarding, the ball-hawking junior should have a field day against the team that ranks 243rd in turnovers.
What can we expect from the crowd during this game? Will the fans get behind one team or the other?
Doug Tifft: The crowd will always get behind an underdog on a neutral court, in an NCAA Tournament game, and Xavier is about as close to that profile as there is left in the Tournament. The only difference in this situation is the all-important office pool bracket, which for many people would be left in the shredder if Xavier were to pull the upset.
With the neutral crowd advantage nullified, Xavier will have to rely on their rooting section to make the trip from Cincinnati to Boston. As a small liberal arts college of 4,000 undergraduates Xavier does not have an alumni base in the northeast that will come out in force to support the team, or a hoard of wealthy donors that will be able to travel around the country with the team.
That said, however, Xavier does have an extraordinary commitment to their basketball program in the university community. Instead of a plethora of wealthy donors, Xavier has a hoard of devoted blue-collar boosters that feel a deeper tie to the program because of their loyal support of the team dating back to its lowly days in the Midwest Collegiate Conference.
While many of these fans may not be able to make it out to TD Banknorth Garden, the ones that do are loud enough to make up for any difference, and will negate any sort of a vocal upper hand from the Pittsburgh side of the court.
Paul Sievers: I think Pitt will end up traveling to this game pretty nicely. While Pitt football struggles to bring fans on the road with them, the basketball team is always decently represented. It is amazing to see how, in the span of a decade, Pitt has gone from a program with an average following to a program with as loyal a following you will find anywhere in the country.
I think the crowd will be fairly neutral. I would imagine there will be a lot of Duke fans in Boston and they will all be pulling for Xavier, though it remains to be seen how emotionally invested they get in a game that doesn’t involve their team.
Also, this game will be played in a cavernous NBA style arena, not a college gym where the fans are right on top of the players. I think a lot of the crowd noise is going to get lost. The crowd shouldn’t be a factor.
Doug Tifft: The previous two times that Xavier reached the Sweet 16—2008 and 2004—they escaped close calls to keep on roaring to the Elite Eight. While this year’s team may not have the offensive gifts of either of those two teams, there has never been a more gifted team on the defensive end of the floor in Xavier history than the 2008-09 squad.
Xavier will have to rely on that defense heavily, and hope that they are able to force Pitt out of their comfort zone, and cause turnovers. The Panthers are vulnerable to teams that are able to turn them over, shoot the three-point shot on them, negate their advantage on the offensive glass and get Blair into foul trouble. Xavier has the ability to do all of those things.
I cannot see this game swinging more than seven or eight points in either direction throughout because the style of play will be slow enough to negate any sort of extended scoring run, even if Pitt is able to get their transition offense into gear.
As a result of that, the final eight minutes of the game, in which Pittsburgh will have the pressure of being a top seed on the ropes for yet another game, and Xavier will be able to play with the freedom of an unheralded underdog, will be tense.
The difference, though, could be Pittsburgh’s inexperience in tight situations. The Panthers have outscored opponents by 13 this season, and have not won with a late rally all season—with the possible exceptions of an eight point win over Florida State Dec. 21.
Without familiarity in the late game situations, Xavier will have the upper hand in the final seconds of a nail-biter.
Miller wants the pride of beating his Alma mater, and the redemption for mismanaging the Ohio State loss in the NCAA’s two years ago. He will get both: Xavier 67 Pittsburgh 65
Paul Sievers: After his Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, Manny Ramirez jubilantly told a reporter “I don’t believe in curse, I believe you make your own destination.”
I don’t believe that the Panthers are afflicted by any Sweet 16 curse and I believe that they will make Detroit their ultimate destination.
I think an important factor here will be the schedule Xavier has faced to this point. The Musketeers have not faced a team with anywhere near as much talent as Pitt since they faced Duke at the end of December. It is not easy to be prepared after such a stretch without facing an elite team.
Pitt on the other hand is battle tested. Thanks to a rigorous Big East schedule, Pitt has played five games in the past two months against teams that are currently in the Sweet 16. Pitt will be more than ready to face a team of Xavier’s ilk.
If the Musketeers are hitting their threes and find a way to get Blair into foul trouble then I’m worried. But that’s a lot to ask. As good as Xavier has been on defense and on the glass this season, I don’t think they’ve had to guard anyone quite like Sam Young nor fight for boards against the likes of DeJuan Blair.
I also have faith that Levance Fields will be healthy enough to run the offense without slowing it down. He looked much faster against Oklahoma State than he did against East Tennessee State.
If this game is close, I disagree with Doug about Pitt’s experience in tight game situations. By my account, Levance Fields is one of the most clutch humans currently roaming the Earth. If the way he led Pitt to victory in the final minutes at UConn doesn’t prove that this team has the necessary intestinal fortitude then I don’t know what will.
Pitt beat East Tennessee State by 10 and Oklahoma State by eight. I’m going to say the trend continues and Pitt beats Xavier by six. Pitt 78, Xavier 72.