After a promising start to a "rebuilding" season that saw three consecutive road wins against UConn, Syracuse, and Cincinnati, it appeared the Panthers were destined to return to earth. Panther faithful began to curb expectations as Pitt was mired in a mid-season slump.
Currently, after this recent five game winning streak that included wins over top-10 teams Villanova and West Virginia, Pitt finds itself in position to win the Big East with a strong finish. These are five thoughts on the five game win streak.
1). Gary McGhee Must Be in the Discussion for Big East Most Improved Player:
In McGhee's first two seasons at Pitt, he averaged less than six minutes, two points and two rebounds per game. He was raw, overweight, and to be honest, goofy-looking. It appeared that his role would stretch no further than being a "punching bag" for DeJuan Blair in practice.
Few could have guessed that McGhee, more than any Pitt player, would reap the benefits of playing with DeJuan Blair. McGhee had the advantage of not only being able to watch and dissect how Blair would destroy the premiere Big East big men (Hasheem Thabeet, Luke Harangody, David Padgett) every game for two seasons, but was also lucky enough to be able to go up against him everyday in practice.
The experience helped Gary learn the physical Big East-game and gave him the confidence to defend and rebound with anyone in the country.
This season, McGhee's play has been nothing short of inspiring. He is averaging more than than 23 minutes, 7.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. He has seven games with 10 or more points and three double-doubles.
Recently, he has turned up the intensity to yet another level. Two games ago against Marquette, he had six blocks, and against Villanova he had eight offensive rebounds (10 total).
If Pitt hopes to make a run in this year's NCAA tourney, they will need McGhee to continue his impressive play.
2). Jamie Dixon should be considered for National Coach of the Year:
Perhaps. What coach has done more with less?
Pitt lost four starters from last year's Elite Eight team and returned only three players who logged significant minutes.
They are currently 21-6 overall and 10-4 in the toughest conference in America, the Big East.
Some of the other candidates are John Calipari (Kentucky), Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Frank Martin (Kansas State), and Matt Painter (Purdue).
While all of these coaches have had extraordinary seasons, there are a few reasons Dixon's name deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence.
Firstly, as already stated, they lost much of the scoring from last season's team and they play a very difficult schedule. According to the RPI , Pitt currently has the fourth toughest schedule in the country.
Secondly, every one of those teams listed above was picked to finish higher than Pitt in the preseason outlook. Lastly, all of those teams are loaded with NBA talent, while I'm not sure Pitt has even one first rounder.
3.) Pitt is a Sure Bet to Make the Final Four Next Season:
Next year's squad is going to be the deepest Pitt team in the Ben Howland-Jamie Dixon era. Without including the three high school players that have already signed for Pitt, the team will go eight deep.
Jermaine Dixon is the only player they are losing who sees significant time.
The coaching staff will have the offseason to work with promising freshman Dante Taylor. Taylor lacks upper body strength, which I am certain is exactly what Dixon and company will be focusing on this offseason. I have always marveled at how Pitt brings along undersized big men (DeJuan Blair, Chevy Troutman, Ontario Lett, and Gary McGhee) and I have to believe Taylor will be the next in this long line.
Travon Woodall should develop nicely into a starting point guard, allowing Ashton Gibbs to make a permanent move to the two guard spot. This will add some much needed scoring to the Pitt attack.
Most importantly, the experience of this young team will carry over to next season. Pitt had five players coming into this season that were in a word, raw.
Two of them, Taylor and Travon Woodall, were right out of high school. The three others in Gibbs, McGhee, and Nasir Robinson saw limited minutes last year. All five, after having played 27 games and counting this season, will be seasoned veterans.
4.) Pitt is looking at a Three or Four Seed and Has a Legitimate Shot to Win the Big East Regular Season Championship:
Pitt is currently ranked No. 12 in the AP Top 25 and nine in the RPI. If you go by these rankings, they will be a three or four seed. I'm not one to prognosticate, but if you look at the the remainder of their schedule, things appear pretty good. Pitt has no ranked teams left on their schedule.
Their toughest remaining game is against a largely disappointing Notre Dame team. After ND, their final three games are against three of the bottom four teams in the Big East in St. Johns, Providence, and Rutgers.
If you then look at the remaining schedule of the three teams currently ahead of Pitt in the conference, you see that the Panthers have a serious chance to win the Big East Regular Season Championship.
West Virginia is currently one-half game up on Pitt. WVU, in their final four games, play UConn, Cincinnati, Georgetown, and Villanova. They will be lucky to split those games.
Pitt is one game behind Villanova. Nova plays South Florida, Syracuse, Cinci, and WVU. Like WVU, they are facing four teams that are fighting for a tourney berth.
Syracuse, the favorite, is two games up on Pitt. Remaining on their schedule is Providence, 'Nova, St. Johns, and Louisville.
Fortunately for Pitt, they have the tie-breaker over 'Nova, 'Cuse, Marquette, and Louisville.
I predict Pitt will finish second behind Syracuse.
5.) Why I Like the Panthers Chances in the NCAA Tournament:
Most tournament games come down to two things: free throw shooting and clutch play.
Pitt, as a team, shoots nearly 70 percent from the line. This ranks sixth in the Big East. They have four players who shoot over 70 percent, and one player, Gibbs, who shoots nearly 90 percent.
One must look no further than the games against Lou and WVU to see that Pitt keeps their composure under pressure. Against Lou, Pitt trailed by five with less than a minute to play. They would end up making a few very key shots and beating Lou in overtime.
The win against WVU, where Pitt trailed by five with 35 seconds to play, was arguably the best comeback of the entire year. After some huge free throws, a three-pointer that Ashton Gibbs will remember for the remainder of his life, and three overtimes, Pitt outlasted the Mountaineers.
Another reason I like Pitt is because they have a shut down defender in Dixon. When Pitt goes up against teams with one star player, like Even Turner (Ohio State), Wesley Johnson (Syracuse), or Trevon Hughes (Wisconsin), they will need a star defensive performance.
In two games against Seton Hall, Dixon held star Jeremy Hazell to a combined 11 points, and only two in Pitts win over the Pirates in early February. Matching up with Scottie Reynolds against 'Nova, despite scoring 20 points, at times Dixon had Reynolds (who finished with six costly turnovers) visibly rattled.
Finally, I like the Panthers' chances because despite having an impressive 21-6 record and a current five game win streak, they have not yet played their best ball. At times, they have been sloppy and inconsistent, losing four of five prior to the five game win streak.
If the Panthers hit their stride, continue to play well, and get better, they could be very dangerous in the coming weeks.
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