The Pitt Panthers have gotten off to a hot start in conference play, with a sparkling 3-0 record. There are three primary reasons why the Panthers are sitting pretty atop the Big East.
1. Ashton Gibbs
Ashton Gibbs' play through three games of Big East play has been nothing short of inspiring. Gibbs, the recently proclaimed Big East Player of the Week, is averaging 36 minutes, 22 points, five rebounds, and three assists. He is shooting a "Troutman-esque" 64 percent from the field, with the bulk of his shots coming from the perimeter.
He has done an excellent job of controlling the flow of the game from the point guard position, making sure to involve each of his teammates. On top of that, he has only committed two turnovers!
When asked to play shooting guard, Gibbs is far and away Pitt's biggest threat. Over the span of three games, Ashton is 10-14 (71 percent) from three point land and 20-21 from the stripe (he recently broke the Panther record for consecutive free throws made with 35.)
All in all, this sophomore is playing at an All-American level.
2. Veteran Coaching
Head coach Jamie Dixon has his team prepared to play. The game plan against Syracuse proved very effective; control the pace, speed, and tempo.
On offense, every trip down the floor had Pitt using as much of the 35 second shot clock as possible. This strategy frustrated the Orange and as the game progressed, Syracuse became visibly erratic, turning the ball over and rushing low percentage shots.
Two nights later in Cincinnati, Pitt did not allow the emotional high of a victory at Syracuse affect them in their preparation. Taking a young team on the road twice in three days against any Big East opponent is no easy task, especially as the Carrier Dome is annually one of the toughest gyms in America to find success.
Pitt has done a surprisingly excellent job of maintaining their composure in big moments. Each time Syracuse or Cincy looked primed to make a run, Pitt had an answer.
In the second half against Cincinnati, in an effort to contain freshman phenom Lance Stephenson (who should be playing in the NBA right now, not the Big East), Dixon employed a two-three zone.
Stephenson proved far too skilled for any one man to guard him early in the game, scoring 13 of his 15 points effortlessly. Switching back and forth between man and zone not only slowed Stephenson down, it seemed to confuse the entire Bobcat rotation. He was held to just two points in the second half and was not nearly as visible.
3. Every Panther is Playing Their Part
In order to be successful, Pitt needed their role players to step up. After all, Gibbs can’t do it all (or can he?). Many Pitt fans, me included, did not expect the contributions of diaper dandies Travon Woodall and Dante Taylor, the defensive prowess of Gary McGhee, or the emergence of veterans Jermaine Dixon, Gilbert Brown, and Brad Wanamaker into very solid all around players.
The team defense, as in years past, has been top-notch, holding opponents to 41 percent shooting. Gary McGhee deserves much of the credit. His big body has done a great job of clogging the lane.
Despite their impressive start, it is FAR too early in the season to look at Pitt as a conference favorite. In terms of expectations, the next three games (UCONN, Georgetown, and Louisville) will shed more light on what to expect for the rest of the season.