PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — If Pitt wishes to be labeled as something other than an average Big East team come Selection Sunday, it must begin taking advantage of above-average Big East opportunities.
Some above-average guard play wouldn’t hurt either, as the Panthers (5-4, 17-5) get set to host No. 6 Syracuse (6-1, 18-2) at noon Saturday at the Petersen Events Center.
Throughout the season, the importance of a healthy Tray Woodall to the home team has been evident. The redshirt senior is second on the team in scoring with 10.7 points per game, and carries a streak of 42 consecutive games with at least one assist into Saturday’s contest.
But for Jamie Dixon, still seeking a signature victory in 2012-13, perhaps his greatest perceived asset all along has been his bench, and newcomer Trey Zeigler has it in him to be just as much an impact player in Pitt’s backcourt. The junior swingman from Central Michigan has shot 52% in his last five games, averaging double digits in that span.
How important are Tray and Trey? Here’s a look back at their intra-conference exploits:
Dec. 31: Pitt had No. 8 Cincinnati right where it wanted the Bearcats, leading by eight at halftime, but UC made a late surge to steal that one, 70-61, at The Pete. Woodall finished with nine points and three assists, but missed a critical free throw off an and-one layup in the final moments, and also missed all three attempts beyond the arc. It was the first time since the 2009 Big East Tournament the Panthers, as a team, failed to hit a three.
Jan. 8: A visit to the Verizon Center produced a 73-45 blowout of No. 19 Georgetown, the second-largest margin of victory ever in a Pitt Big East road win. Woodall contributed to that historic margin with a game-high seven assists to go with his 11 points, and Zeigler padded the lead with a game-best 5-of-6 performance at the foul line. The Panthers made 14 of 20 free throws as a group.
Jan. 12: It was deja vu of the wrong kind for the partisans at The Pete when Woodall incurred his only injury of the season, missing most of this meeting with Marquette due to concussion-like symptoms. Sure enough, Pitt couldn’t right the wrongs offensively, shooting just 39.7% from the field, and, despite the Eagles doing everything in their power to give this game away, they eventually took it back, 74-67, in overtime.
Jan. 16: In what could be charitably described as a sloppy win at Villanova, Zeigler really took command of a game for the first time since coming to Oakland. Given 25 minutes, he shared the team lead with 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting, adding six boards and leading a bizarre 15-0 run in the last five minutes that culminated in a 58-43 victory. Woodall, no worse for the wear, scraped together eight and five, and set up Zeigler for a key transition bucket during that run.
Jan. 19: With Pitt struggling in Big East play, Woodall showed character in a much-needed 69-61 decision over arch-rival UConn at The Pete. When it appeared as though the Panthers might concoct a way to lose another game in which they were once in complete control, Woodall hit an open three to break a late tie, and his big second half resulted in 13 points and six helpers on 5-of-9 shooting for the day. Zeigler was a presence off the bench, leading that group in minutes (23) and points (eight).
Jan. 26: As has generally been the case, Pitt was able to make its matchup with DePaul look like a glorified scrimmage, dominating the Blue Demons, 93-55, at home for the most lopsided Big East win in program history. Woodall handled his business with eight points and eight assists, but this one got so far out of hand that Zeigler was the headline-grabber, leading the field with a season-best 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting in 18 minutes. He went 4-of-6 at the line and added four offensive boards.
Jan. 28: Despite facing a depleted Louisville lineup, Pitt got stage fright on “Big Monday,” falling 64-61 to the No. 12 Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center. Though the Panthers’ bench fared better than Rick Pitino’s reserves, Zeigler shot just 2-of-7 and just 1-of-4 at the line–a microcosm of this one–and for just the fourth time all season, Woodall ended with an even or negative assist-to-turnover ratio. Perhaps the biggest silver lining on a night when Pitt had no answer for The Ville’s inside game was Woodall draining a team-high 14 points, including four threes, keeping his team in a game in which it largely did not belong.
Pitt still leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, and Woodall, among the Big East’s top five in assists per game (5.7), is as good a reason as any why the Panthers, on the whole, have taken care of the ball so well, and why, at its best, this offense has nice balance.
In that respect, a big day from Woodall is essential, but also in terms of perimeter defense, which has been suspect at times for Pitt. Its backcourt must contain sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams, the national leader in assists per game (8.9) and conference leader in steals per game (3.0), and senior two-guard Brandon Triche, who leads the team with 14.9 points per game.
With Jim Boeheim able to bring just seven scholarship players to town, putting the ball in the hands of those two, presumably, becomes that much more important, and, from a Pitt perspective, so does depth. The Panthers, overall, are averaging 27 bench points per game, whereas the Orange will dress four bench players who have combined for five points on the season.
Zeigler, in conference play, has averaged a full point per game better than his season average, his own assist-to-turnover ratio is a vastly improved 2.12, and, perhaps much to Dixon’s delight, he’s rebounding a little bit better against Big East foes as well.
Pitt, for all its shortcomings, let a game for the taking get away on Monday. Now it has another shot at an eyebrow-raiser versus another powerful team more vulnerable than usual, and a team against whom Dixon’s teams have matched up much better.
In the long run, it’s quite important for Pitt on Saturday to kick The ‘Cuse while it’s down. If the Panthers do add to their resume, don’t be surprised if the Tra(e)ys are an integral part of it.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)