Pittsburgh Basketball: 5 Keys to a Successful Postseason for the Panthers

Matt Popchock@@mpopchockContributor IIMarch 20, 2014

Pittsburgh Basketball: 5 Keys to a Successful Postseason for the Panthers

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    First came the uncertainty of a new, younger team entering a new conference. Then came a hot streak spanning the fall, marred only by a power outage in Manhattan against the Cincinnati Bearcats.

    Then came Durand Johnson's knee. Then came shooting woes, rebounding woes, perimeter defense woes and tactical woes. Then came devastating losses to ACC front-runners Virginia, Syracuse and Duke.

    Then came a redeeming win in Clemson, and a couple more significant ones in Greensboro.

    Now it all comes down to this.

    What's next for the Panthers is their 12th NCAA tournament appearance in 13 seasons. What follows are five important items on Pitt's postseason checklist.

To Be the Man...

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    "Hey, [insert name of AP poll voter here], how come you don't have Pitt ranked?"

    "Because they need to play somebody."

    I could probably do an entire column on the most common Pittsburgh fan complaints and their validity (shhh...don't encourage my editor). Instead, I'll simply hazard the guess this might be the most common one—maybe even more than anything Jamie Dixon does in terms of game management—and I'll explore it further.

    It isn't fair to refute every result that ends up in the win column for Dixon and the Panthers simply because their schedule is allegedly "too soft." No major college basketball program is above taking the occasional vacation to Cupcake City.

    A little perspective:

    In the 2013-14 regular season Pitt played 11 teams that would go on to make the NCAA tournament. That's as many as Syracuse, which spent a good part of the year with a No. 1 ranking, and only two fewer than Duke, which reached the ACC tournament final.

    Oh, and, not to be "that guy," but Wichita State, which knocked Pitt out of last year's tournament, played three.

    The bigger problem is the bottom line. Entering conference tourney week, the Panthers had beaten only three of those 11 teams, and Dixon, after several frustrating losses, still lacked his first signature victory as coach of an ACC squad. That changed with Pitt's 80-75 upset of the Tar Heels in the conference quarterfinal.

    Perhaps the Panthers' biggest crime in their Feb. 15 meeting at the Dean Dome was they picked the wrong time of the year to play the home team, and an even worse time to play James Michael McAdoo, who led the way with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Plus, there was a sinking feeling that it wasn't going to be Pitt's day when Talib Zanna was neutralized early.

    Their postseason grudge match was a much different story. Though McAdoo kept the Heels within hailing distance, he was held to 4-for-13 from the field, while Zanna took control with 19 points and 21 boards at the Greensboro Coliseum last Friday.

    The point is, even if the Panthers don't perform a miracle against the Gators in the South Region this weekend, I think we can scratch "beat somebody" off the list.

Don't Catch a Cold

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Traditionally, Jamie Dixon's teams have won consistently because of their superior work ethic and attention to detail defensively. In the postseason, however, everybody works hard and plays defense with greater urgency. Mitigating that advantage has put Pitt at something of a disadvantage in past NCAA tournaments; therefore, it needs to develop more consistency on offense.

    Pitt lost twice to ACC regular season and postseason champion Virginia by a total margin of six points. Count me among the vocal minority not surprised the second meeting was largely a carbon copy of the first.

    The Panthers were very capable of hanging with the Hoos, and they proved it. To win, they didn't need to shoot lights-out like they did at the outset of their ACC quarterfinal win over UNC. They only needed not to stink. Shooting 37 percent for the day and, at one point, 27 percent to begin the second half wasn't going to cut it.

    They need to avoid the same prolonged cold spells that have cost them games against marquee opponents like Cincinnati, Syracuse and Virginia.

    Against North Carolina last week, Pitt shot marginally better from the field (51.9 percent) than it did at the free-throw line (51.2 percent). That can't happen, either.

Law and Order

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    Wesley Broome/Associated Press

    One of the all-encompassing questions heading into the 2013-14 NCAA season was, in the aftermath of rule-book tweaks, how would players handle the new standard of enforcement? Furthermore, would the standard of enforcement, as it applies to Pitt, seem any different in the ACC than the Big East?

    The Big East, in its heyday, was known for its rough-and-tumble style of play, and Jamie Dixon, over the years, recruited players who mastered that. And although Pitt fans have voiced mixed feelings about ACC officiating over the course of the team's first campaign in the new conference, the Panthers have obviously adjusted well enough to be one of the 64 teams left to play for a national title.

    What happens in the postseason, when officials don't just let boys be boys? And what happens when they do? Ask James Robinson how he feels about that after a crucial noncall in the closing seconds of last Saturday's ACC semifinal loss.

    There are games that practically police themselves, and there are games, like the one the Panthers just played against North Carolina, in which it feels like one team has to play two teams. Zanna, who made the first string of the ACC all-tournament team, fouled out of that game after 34 minutes, and the Panthers can't afford for him to get into trouble again.

    Pitt needs a strong inside game from its fifth-year center, who ranks second in the ACC with 8.8 rebounds per game, but missed practice Wednesday with flulike symptoms, so it can't play tentatively. However, without as much depth as the elite teams in this year's tournament, it can't play that brash Big East style of yesteryear either. How tightly these games are officiated could be an X-factor for Pitt.


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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    What's going to be trending on Twitter Thursday night: #H2P ("Hail to Pitt") or #SOP ("Same Old Pitt")? Perhaps only redshirt senior forward Lamar Patterson can answer that question.

    Every Pitt team seems to have an as-this-guy-goes-so-goes-the-team player, and the Lancaster, Pa., native is it. Patterson leads the Panthers and ranks fourth in the ACC with 17.6 points per game.

    He strapped the team to his back in the regular-season finale at Clemson, matching a career-best 30 points on 10-for-19 shooting from the field in a critical overtime win. He was dominant in his ACC postseason debut, delivering 24 points in an easy win over Wake Forest.

    The key for Patterson is efficiency. He ranks among the top 10 scorers in his conference with a 44.7 shooting percentage from the field, and he's among the top five with a 39.7 clip from three-point range. We haven't always seen him rise to the challenge when defended by players and teams of a higher caliber (see: Parker, Jabari).

    Against North Carolina and Virginia, he shot just under 33 percent from the field altogether. Colorado ranks 133rd in Division I in terms of field goal percentage defense.

    It's time for the only player on this roster remotely resembling a future NBA star to step up and take over once again.

Back to the Future

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Despite last season's early NCAA tournament exit, eventual Oklahoma City Thunder draftee Steven Adams used his only tournament game to put on a show for both fans and scouts. Pitt's present freshman class also needs to use March Madness not just to prove themselves now, but to audition for later.

    This applies particularly to guard Josh Newkirk. I'm the first to admit I probably underestimated the impact of sophomore Durand Johnson's season-ending leg injury, and I'm also the first to admit I anticipated Cam Wright continuing to build upon his early-season prowess, as opposed to gradually slipping back toward career norms.

    In addition, James Robinson, by and large, is only as good as his defense and ball control on a daily basis; ergo, the Panthers need some offensive help on the back end. Superb guard play is a prerequisite for postseason success, and it doesn't behoove Pitt that, right now, that 20-point outburst against N.C. State on March 3 seems like just a blip on the radar for Newkirk.

    Nevertheless, he can make big plays at any time. He made only one field goal at Clemson on March 8, and whether it was legit is certainly debatable. But, for all we know, it was a field goal that saved Pitt's season.

    He was solid off the bench against Wake Forest in that second-round ACC tournament game, going 4-for-6 and chipping in 10 points, but he was not immune from Pitt's free-throw shooting woes against the Tar Heels, and he was held in check by the Hoos in the ACC semifinal.

    Pitt, ranked 22nd nationally in scoring defense, shouldn't have serious trouble defending Colorado without him. With him, they need offensive support. Is the future now or later for the All-ACC Academic honoree?

Parting Shots

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    When Ben Howland took over Pitt basketball in 1999, the only guarantee was that he couldn't do much worse than predecessor Ralph Willard, though late in Howland's second year in Pittsburgh the Panthers were mired in more mediocrity.

    Then came wins in six of seven games, including, most importantly, two eyebrow-raisers in a row against No. 19 Notre Dame and No. 17 Syracuse, with the latter coming in overtime at Madison Square Garden in the Big East tournament.

    Did it pave a road to March Madness? No. Tenth-ranked Boston College slaughtered the Panthers in the Big East final, forcing them to settle for an NIT berth that lasted two rounds.

    Did it serve notice to fans that there was hope on the horizon for a program that spent most of the previous decade spinning its tires? Yes. Next came a school-record 29-win season, the end of a nine-year NCAA tournament drought, and, as Cosmo Kramer would say, a lot of other stuff.

    Right now, the state of Pitt basketball seems closer to the slow upturn of the Howland era in 2000-01 than the present peak of the Dixon era in 2008-09. Since the fall, when Pitt was about to enter a new power conference, surrounded by new, unfamiliar opponents, it's been difficult to get a read on these Panthers. They posted losses that were tough to justify and wins that were tough to celebrate, but they were also unfortunate on some level.

    However, as the 2013-14 team approaches the finish line (hopefully not to cross it for a little while), we've seen them play better, and we've seen their fortunes change. The Panthers have won five of their last seven entering the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., to take on Colorado on Thursday afternoon, and they've displayed the kind of spunk Pittsburghers always expect from their teams.

    If the Panthers beat the Buffs and show some of that spunk in a presumed round-of-32 matchup against top overall seed Florida, declare victory and start looking forward to next season, regardless of the latter result. Cam Wright has another year to improve, James Robinson has more layers to add to his game, the freshmen have time to grow, especially Josh Newkirk, and Dixon has time to expand his recruiting base as an ACC member.

    It may sound trite to longtime Pitt fans, but today in Oakland it's all about tomorrow.

    Statistics courtesy of TheACC.com and PittsburghPanthers.com