Pittsburgh Basketball: 5 Keys for Panthers to Peak in NCAA Tournament

Tyler DonohueNational Recruiting AnalystFebruary 16, 2013

Pittsburgh Basketball: 5 Keys for Panthers to Peak in NCAA Tournament

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    The Pittsburgh Panthers are on quite a roll against conference opponents and continue to climb the Big East standings. Coach Jamie Dixon's team has won seven of eight contests to pull within one game of conference front-runner Georgetown.

    Pittsburgh has sharpened various aspects of its approach throughout the winter, but there's always room for improvement, especially when the stakes are a Big East title and NCAA tournament berth. The Panthers can seal the deal for a high seed in the conference tourney with a strong finish, which would also do the program plenty of favors when it comes to NCAA bracketology.

    With three weeks remaining in the regular season, these should be the Panthers' top priorities. 

Continue to Clamp Down on Defense

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    Pittsburgh has pounded opposing offenses into submission all season. The Panthers surrender just 54 points per game, the fifth-best mark among each team in the country.

    Pittsburgh takes control of the perimeter, holding teams to under 30 percent from three-point range, and is also getting the job done inside. The Panthers pull down more defensive rebounds than any program in the conference.

    This team has limited Big East opponents to fewer than 60 points in each of its last four victories. 

Win Road Games

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    Pittsburgh has rebounded nicely from a rough start to its conference road schedule. The Panthers are 4-1 away from home since losing at Rutgers on Jan. 5. 

    Pittsburgh beat conference-leading Georgetown on the road in January and stole a win in Cincinnati last Friday. The Panthers have also collected victories at Villanova and Providence.

    Pittsburgh travels three times during its final six-game stretch of the season. The team journeys to Marquette and St. John's in the coming week. 

    The Panthers lost to Marquette in overtime on Jan. 12 so that road challenge also offers up an opportunity for revenge.

Take Care of Business Against Big East Bottom-Dwellers

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    The Panthers' final four opponents rank in the bottom half of Big East standings. After upcoming back-to-back matchups with nationally ranked foes Marquette and Notre Dame, things get easier for Pittsburgh. 

    Trips to St. John's (7-6 in conference) and DePaul (1-10) are sandwiched by visits from South Florida (1-11) and Villanova (6-6). If Pittsburgh aims to impress the NCAA tournament architects, it must win games that look easy on paper.

Lean on Leadership

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    The Panthers' top four leading scorers are either juniors or seniors. That sticks out in a national college basketball landscape filled with untested lineups. 

    Tray Woodall is a fifth-year senior and has been part of three NCAA tournament runs. The guard teams up with experienced juniors J.J. Moore, Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna in the Panthers rotation. 

    Talent takes you far but is so often trumped by basketball intelligence in NCAA tournament action. Pittsburgh can bank on its trustworthy veterans to pave the way in the postseason.

Allow Steven Adams to Emerge

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    Steven Adams is kind of the odd man out in this Panthers rotation. The New Zealand native injects youth into a veteran-laden lineup.

    The 7'0" freshman has stepped up lately, compiling averages of 10 points and eight rebounds per game in February. Adams pulled down 15 rebounds against Seton Hall two weeks ago and he now ranks among Big East leaders in blocked shots.

    He projects as a 2013 NBA draft lottery pick, and if this is his only season as a Panther, he can help make it last as long as possible.