“This Week at the Pete” is a weekly column that takes a look at all things Pitt basketball. Your comments are more than welcome and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.
De-fense (clap clap) De-fense (clap clap). Tenacious half court defense has been the trademark of Jamie Dixon’s teams and this year’s Panthers will be no different. This week, the Panthers played three games in which they were able to overcome injuries, sloppy ball handling and poor shooting by playing lockdown defense and winning ugly. If the old adage “defense wins championships” holds true then the Panthers could end up winning more than just the Legends Classic because few teams in America can defend like Pitt.
Pitt began the week hosting the Belmont Bruins, the defending champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference. While the game saw small forward Gil Brown return to the lineup, Pitt center DeJuan Blair was a late scratch after his right knee swelled up.
In addition to Blair’s absence, backup center Gary McGhee was limited to 16 minutes with a minor ankle sprain. This enabled Belmont to grab an astonishing 23 offensive rebounds and win the rebounding battle against a very small Panther squad. The Panthers also lost the turnover battle 18-13 which is very unlike Pitt.
Pitt was able overcome these deficiencies with a simple game plan, tight perimeter defense and a heavy dose of Sam Young on offense. Belmont, who came into the Pitt game shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc was held to 9 of 29 (31 percent) from distance and only 29 percent shooting overall.
With no real post presence for this game, the offensive game plan was simple. Give the ball to Sam Young and get out of the way. Sam scored a career high 33 points against Belmont on 13 of 17 shooting and carried Pitt to the 74-60 victory.
The Panthers were in action again on Black Friday where they faced Texas Tech in the semi-finals of the Legends Classic in Newark, NJ. After an X-ray and a MRI showed no damage, DeJuan Blair was cleared to play against the Red Raiders and his presence was noticeable.
DeJuan scored 15 points and had 11 boards while forcing the ball out of the post on defense, making Tech settle for jump shots. It was a big day for Pitt’s front court on a whole as Sam Young and Tyrell Biggs scored 24 and 9 points respectively. Each grabbed eight rebounds. Pitt out rebounded the Red Raiders 42 to 25 including a 13 to 5 edge offensively en route to an 80-67 victory.
That was the good news. The bad news was Levance Fields played the worst game of his career. Levance only scored three points on 11 percent shooting while turning the ball over four times compared to four assists. I know it is early in the season but if Pitt is going to make a run in March they can not afford to have an off night from their point guard.
Twenty four hours later, the Panthers were back in action for the finals of the Legends Classic against the Washington State Cougars. If you like defense then this was a dream match up. Both teams shot an identical 17 of 48 from the field. The difference in this one was physicality, Pitt did a great job of taking the game to Wazzu and was able to get to the foul line 27 times compared to the Cougars four. Pitt also was able to convert their charity shots making 20 of 27, this is a great sign considering this team has been plagued by poor free throw shooting in the past. After Pitt’s 57-43 victory, Washington State coach Tony Bennett commented, "we just bounced off bodies. That was a new level of physicality for us.”
The Panthers will host two games this week, starting with Duquesne in the 77th edition of “The City Game” on Wednesday night. Pitt leads the all time series 45 to 31 and has won the last seven meetings between the two. Duquesne is 4-1 on the young season led by sophomore Damian Saunders. The Dukes have shown the ability to put points on the board. However, they have not faced a defense like Pitt’s and with the game being played at the Pete, Pitt should be heavily favored.
Saturday night sees the Panthers host the Catamounts of Vermont. While Vermont’s 3-2 record is not impressive, one of those losses is an overtime loss at Maryland so this team can play with the big boys. While UVM is a solid low-major program, they probably lack the size and depth to be considered a threat. An upset here would be a tremendous shocker.
The key for this week will be Pitt’s guard play. The front court has been stellar but the back court has be a slight disappointment so far this season. Aside from the Texas Tech game, Levance Fields has been solid but I would like to see him play well just to be sure that the Tech game was an aberration. Jermaine Dixon has shown flashes of brilliance but needs to improve upon his 17 percent from three point land. Aston Gibbs, Brad Wannamaker and Trey Woodall all look like they lack confidence which will only change with playing time. This is the time of year for them to develop and all hands will be needed on deck come March. As always, hail to Pitt!