PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — You know, after the butt-tuning that occurred in our nation’s capital last Tuesday, I was sorely tempted to proclaim that Pitt is back. Then, Saturday happened.
Before every home game, with voluminous help from its sports information department, I’m reminded of how dominant the Panthers have been at The Pete lo this past decade. However, looking back on the past calendar year, I can’t help but think that aura of invincibility is fading fast, as Marquette, with its 74-67 overtime victory Saturday, became the latest Big East rival to out-ugly its hosts.
In its first 76 Big East games at the vaunted venue, Pitt had posted 65 victories–an .855 winning percentage. Since last season, it has now dropped seven of its last 11 conference decisions there as it prepares to visit Villanova Wednesday at 7:00 before welcoming longtime rival UConn Saturday at noon.
We don’t know yet if Pitt is back. We’ll know Pitt is back if and when it resumes manufacturing ways to win games like the one this past weekend. That means textbook Jamie Dixon blue-collar basketball in the paint, on the baseline, and off the glass.
Despite putting on a shooting display that nearly made me lose my catered breakfast, including 13-of-26 at the foul line, Pitt led Marquette for nearly three minutes of a game in which, by and large, it was offensively outplayed. Despite putting momentum squarely on their sideline with Patterson’s buzzer-beating, game-tying three-pointer, Pitt, once again, failed to finish, just as it did against Cincinnati and Rutgers.
Despite a vastly improved group effort against the Hoyas, and despite the best efforts of junior Lamar Patterson to strap his team to his back with a personal-best 22 points against the Golden Eagles, we simply haven’t seen enough from Pitt’s frontcourt, which, overall, hit just six of 13 free throws, and, in the OT, just one of its first six shots altogether, committing two fouls and two turnovers in that span.
Both pairs belonged to J.J. Moore, who, lately, reminds me of Gilbert Brown for the wrong reasons. He vanished into thin air on New Year’s Eve, then, after redeeming himself on last week’s road trip, shot just 2-of-7 from the floor Saturday, and has collected one rebound in each of his last two games.
Steven Adams, for multiple reasons, has also had a tough time making his presence felt on a regular basis. He grabbed nine boards against the Bearcats alone, but combined for 13 in the three games that followed, and has averaged just over four points per game to start Big East play. I’m no scout, but the bottom line is, I wouldn’t bet on one-and-done as long as he continues to look incomplete.
Patterson, beginning with his team’s loss to top-five Michigan Nov. 21, scored double figures in seven straight games. In those subsequent defeats versus UC and RU, he shot a collective 33% (6-of-18) from the field.
Even Talib Zanna, who, early on, built a strong case for being the Big East’s most improved player, has not been immune from the inconsistency of Pitt’s inside game.
He helped the Panthers rip apart Georgetown with his 15 points, three days removed from fouling out with nine points and just one board against the Scarlet Knights. Netting Pitt’s first field goal of the afternoon was his high-water mark in a 1-of-9 shooting day Saturday.
So I don’t exclusively pin Saturday’s loss, or the other two Big East ones, on Dixon. Players have to make plays, and players, especially younger ones, do not always easily adjust to stiffer competition. Furthermore, his relative loyalty to Adams and fellow freshman starter James Robinson has demonstrated he’s willing to change.
But his commitment to change has to be more steadfast, because, obviously, whatever he’s tried so far with this team hasn’t worked well enough in conference play, and the conference standings corroborate.
That means putting Adams, who was 2-for-2 Saturday, and didn’t attempt a single shot in what was a very winnable game against Cincy, in a position where he’s more involved in the offense. It means breaking old habits and letting a hot hand–like Patterson’s, in this most recent case–guide the game sooner, as opposed to later. It means, when necessary, showing greater urgency on possessions.
Again, in fairness, Dixon’s team has to meet him halfway. It must bring Pitt back to the roots of past success by outworking and out-executing opponents on the interior. It looked like it had a hard time matching the want-to of Cincinnati and Marquette, and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, struggled against another zone defense Saturday.
Marquette finished with a 28-18 scoring edge in the paint, along with a 14-8 advantage in the second-chance scoring column. The Eagles out-rebounded Pitt 38-33, collecting 27 defensive boards to 14 offensive ones for the Panthers.
You can’t always break the defenses Pitt has seen and will continue to see by shooting around them, especially if dependable senior Tray Woodall is out for any extended time. You have to attack them fearlessly, get tougher off the boards, and finish opportunities down low. Dixon said it himself Saturday, and it doesn’t ring hollow: in all three Big East losses, Pitt has been out-rebounded, including a season-low 24 at the RAC Jan. 5, where it got manhandled on the defensive glass.
Guess how the game book at the Verizon Center read?
Although I missed hockey terribly, the transition from football to basketball season, for me, has been a smooth one; I might as well borrow the old Gary Bettman Dart Toss board from our Greentree studios to determine which Pitt team will show up on a given day or night.
Come to think of it, that’s the perfect way to describe these Panthers through their first four conference contests: night and day.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)