Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Pittsburgh-Syracuse game that was nationally televised on ESPN. It was one of the stranger games I have ever been to. I don't think a game has ever started with one team going on a 19-0 run, followed by the other team immediately countering with a 17-0 run of their own.
Pitt ended up winning, 74-66, having never trailed in the ball game. Now, Syracuse was without their leading scorer, Kris Joseph, but Pittsburgh was clearly the superior team that night. Considering the Orange have beaten every other team and were ranked fourth in the country at the time, that's saying something.
So, while Pitt is not the favorite to win it all come March (it's still Duke in my opinion), there is certainly an argument as to why no one should be surprised if it is indeed the Panthers cutting down the nets.
It's hard to tell if a team has good chemistry while watching from home. The cameramen are more focused on where the ball is, the coach's reaction and signs in the arena—all of which are understandable.
This is why chemistry is often overlooked, because unless one is at a game and makes a point to focus on the interactions between teammates, team chemistry is hard to gauge.
At their game against Syracuse, it's clear that the Panthers have plenty of team chemistry. The bench was constantly cheering, there was plenty of positive interactions between players on the court after made baskets and it was clear coach Jamie Dixon had complete control over his team during breaks in the action (subtle, but necessary).
During Syracuse's 17-0 run early in the game, I saw no blame being tossed around between teammates. Sure, there was frustration, but that's natural when it comes to highly competitive and skilled athletes.
Pittsburgh is well known for their disappointing finishes in the NCAA tournament. They haven't made a Final Four since World War II (1941) despite being incredibly high seeds, especially recently under Dixon and previous coach Ben Howland. Even worse, the Panthers haven't won an NCAA championship since before there was a tournament (1930).
So, historically, claiming the Panthers will win the NCAA championship seems absolutely ludicrous, right?
Well, there's a first time for everything. It's no secret that expectations are incredibly high this season as evidenced by their No. 3 ranking in the country and a favorite to be a No. 1 seed in March.
Many teams, especially those coming off incredibly successful seasons, tend to lack a sense of urgency which causes them to lose games they would typically never think of losing. For the Panthers, the urgency is pretty high, maybe even a little too high, for them to at least make it to the Final Four.
Because of this, I don't see them having a letdown once tournament play begins. There won't be any underestimating the opponent. The experience of the coach and players should not allow for such a costly mistake.
Despite only having three seniors in Brad Wanamaker (pictured), Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee, this team is incredibly experienced. Playing in the most competitive conference in the country can do that to players. They've played against elite competition, seen numerous different looks on both ends of the floor and thrived.
Also, they have the benefit of experiencing heartbreak in the NCAA tournament as many of the current players were there when Scottie Reynolds of Villanova hit a last second shot two years ago that sent the Wildcats to the Final Four and the Panthers packing.
I'm sure the upperclassmen, especially the seniors, will be determined to not let that happen again.
While guards Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker get most of the publicity for Pittsburgh, they are by no means one-dimensional.
Against Syracuse's famous 2-3 zone, the big guys flourished, specifically Nasir Robinson (pictured) who scored the first seven points of the ball game by getting into the paint and finishing. Fellow big guys Gary McGhee, Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna also found success while Gibbs and Wanamaker had decent, but not great, nights.
Currently, all four of those players are shooting better than 55 percent from the field and grabbing more than four rebounds per game. For a group of guys that don't get much attention, they certainly do their jobs pretty well.
In March, one-dimensional teams are not that successful. If there is a major weakness either down low or on the perimeter, teams exploit that weakness. Pittsburgh should not have to worry about that.
On many teams, when starters come out of the game, the team's skill level dramatically decreases and casual fans are able to tell who the bench players are right away. They're on the bench for a reason: Those players are not as good as the starters (at least in most situations).
Against Syracuse, while I knew who the starters and bench players were, there was no drop off when starters like Gibbs or Wanamaker were replaced. There was no hesitance on offense or lack of communication on defense. While guys like Travon Woodall, Dante Taylor, Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson aren't as good as the starters, it isn't by much.
So, why is their depth the biggest reason? I've found that in the NCAA tournament foul trouble becomes magnified especially when the star player gets two quick fouls early in the game. It usually changes everything as one team is forced to rely on secondary players to fill in, especially with the scoring load, while the other team is desperate to take advantage of a huge threat now sitting on the bench for the foreseeable future.
For Pittsburgh, I don't see that problem happening. Let's say Gibbs gets in foul trouble. While Woodall isn't on Gibbs' level, he showed me against Syracuse that he's able to fill in seamlessly. The only adjustment that is made is there won't be as much outside shooting and Wanamaker becomes the first option (which he usually is when the shot clock winds down anyways).
Because of their depth, any player could get into foul trouble or get hurt, and the Panthers will not be at as big of a disadvantage as almost every other team would (Duke with Nolan Smith and Ohio State with Jared Sullinger would be in major trouble if either player is on the bench for extended periods of time).
Some will say that the Panthers lack major star power or someone who can immediately take over a game, which is absolutely true. However, I would rather have nine very good players than two great players and seven other guys who are decent. We'll find out in a couple months whether or not I'm right.