Seton Hall Basketball: JP's SUPER-SIZED Game Preview- Pittsburgh Panthers

It's the second edition of a SUPER-SIZED game preview. This time, we at SOJ exchanged questions and answers with the Pitt version of South Orange Juice here on the SBNation family of blogs, Cardiac Hill. You can catch my answers to CH's questions about the Pirates here.

For CH's answers to our questions about the Panthers, you can find them after the jump.

Pittsburgh

2011-12 record: 15-10 (4-8 Big East)

All-time series record: 20-31

Last meeting: 1/15/11 (74-53 SHU L)

The Panthers have had a tumultuous season so far, losing their first seven conference games as part of the longest losing streak in the Jamie Dixon era.

It can't be as simple as one injury, right? It very well could be with this team. Point guard Tray Woodall excelled to open the season in non-conference play, but the Panthers lost him when Big East play started with an injury. What followed was the aforementioned losing streak, during which Pitt's normally efficient offense stagnated horribly. Immediately after Woodall returned 5 games ago, they won 4 in a row before Wednesday's loss at USF. Woodall has shot the ball very well this year in addition to his already terrific floor game, making the backcourt duo of him and Ashton Gibbs one of the best in the conference.

Speaking of Gibbs, he also floundered while trying to run the point in Woodall's absence, and this is the primary reason why his shooting numbers are down from normal. He's still as dangerous a player in the nation to leave open from beyond the arc, so Seton Hall will need to know where he is.

Pittsburgh's wings are an interesting bunch that aren't very experienced in terms of game action. Our friends at Cardiac Hill break them down in the section below. Down low the Panthers have Nasir Robinson, an undersized power forward who makes his name with hustle and efficient scoring, as well as Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor. This front line is one of the biggest reasons why rebounding will be key- the Panthers rank near the very top of the league in almost every rebounding category.

One of the strange things (and also something discussed with Cardiac Hill below) is that Pitt's defense, long a strength for them, has not been one this year. That may be the poster stat for how weird this season has been in the Big East.

Seton Hall will win if:

- They continue to run their offense. Obviously, this falls on Jordan Theodore's shoulders, mostly, but against Rutgers the Pirates finally looked like their offense had some flow. It's no coincidence that the shooting was better in the Rutgers game as compared to the six games prior. Gotta keep the flow going.

- Herb Pope goes off. The last time the Panthers came to the Rock, Herb Pope had a monster game of 19 PTS and 9 REB. Being from Aliquippa, Herb always gets up to play the Panthers, and since this will likely be the final time he gets to face the hometown team, if he can have a great game, especially on the boards, the Pirates have a shot.

Pittsburgh will win if:

- Tray Woodall isn't encumbered. This is crucial to Pitt's success. They need a healthy Woodall, and as Cardiac Hill states below, that may or may not be the case on Sunday. If he's healthy, Woodall really does make this team a ton better.

- Unsung wings step up. I'm talking about Lamar Patterson, J.J. Moore, John Johnson, and the like. Gibbs, Robinson and Woodall are known commodities in the Big East. The rest of the players for Pitt are less known. Unexpected contributions could go a long way.

And for more on the Panthers, be sure to check out my Q&A with Cardiac Hill after the jump!

SOJ: Let's start with the obvious- Pitt is struggling this year unlike any year under Jamie Dixon. Coinciding with the long losing streak was the injury to Tray Woodall. How important is Woodall to the flow of the offense? Is taking Woodall away from the Panthers similar to taking Jordan Theodore's contributions away from Seton Hall?

CH: Struggling indeed. But, as we've seen across the basketball world, point guards are in vogue right now. Linsanity! As for flow of the offense, there was NONE without Tray. Ashton Gibbs, love him to death, was simply playing out of position at the PG spot. He was logging too many minutes, not coming off ball screens as he is accustomed to and, most apparent, was his inability to set everything up for the rest of the team. That floor general mentality is what Tray provides this team, as does JT for the Pirates. Simply put, it actually feels like a real offense when he's in the game, just as it did when Brandin Knight, Carl Krauser and Levance Fields were running the show. By the way, Tray and JT's stat lines are freakishly similar.


SOJ: Does any blame for the losing streak fall on Dixon or the rest of the roster? Or is it mostly how important Woodall really is to this team?

CH: Great question. With everything in life, it's a combination of many things, but let's start with the big man himself - Jamie Dixon. For one, he probably could have dealt with Khem Birch, quite possibly the best recruit in the history of Pitt basketball, better. Knowing that Birch had developed a close relationship with former Pitt assistant, Pat Skerry, who left for the head coaching position at Towson, Dixon should have invested more time in developing a relationship with Birch. This "lack of a connection" with Dixon was one of the main reasons for his departure. If we're looking at the eight-game losing streak, he definitely cost us the embarassing Depaul loss. Throwing Isaiah Epps - a stranger on the court, but not the bench - into a crucial, late-game situation was unacceptable. Epps proceeded to miss not one, but two free throws in the waning moments and allowed Depaul to convert an 'and-one' to win it. Somewhat related to Dixon, but really not his fault, has been the underwhelming play of Dante Taylor, another McDonald's All-American. Now that he's a junior, I'm a big believer in what you see is what you get and what we got is nowhere the potential every big-time program, including Uconn, Syracuse, Kansas and Louisville, thought he possessed. And, oh yeah that Tray Woodall guy is pretty important, too.

SOJ: Another noticeable thing this season is that the defense for Pitt isn't quite the same, having given up some uncharacteristically high shooting numbers to opponents this season, including over 60% to USF in the Panthers' last game? What can that be attributed to? Did it have to do with the departures of Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee and Brad Wanamaker from last season's squad? Or are teams just happening to make more shots against the Panthers?
CH: It has to be the lack of an intimidating big man clogging up the paint. Unfortunately, no team is scared to drive the lane on Pitt. In seasons past, we had Gary McGhee, Dajuan Blair, Aaron Gray and Chris Taft, all guys with size and weighing at least 250 pounds. Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor, despite putting up respectable rebounding numbers, don't do it for me in the Big East Toughness Department.
SOJ: Pirate fans know all about Ashton Gibbs and Woodall, and even a little about Nasir Robinson. But many of the other players on Pitt's roster have just started to play big roles, guys like Lamar Patterson, JJ Moore, and John Johnson. What can Pirate fans expect to see in terms of skill set from those less-heralded players?
CH: Funny that you didn't even mention Dante Taylor as a less-heralded player. What a dissapointment. Let's start with Lamar Patterson. You will not find more of the prototypical Jamie Dixon player. Beating up the cliche of "a guy that fits the system," Patterson plays under control every possession, with the ability to score inside and out, even channeling his inner Brad Wanamaker, with some added beef. As for J.J. Moore, he's your Gilbert Brown 2.0 guy. By far the most athletic player on the team, he's still developing real basketball skills, like handling the ball and squaring up to the basket, not off one foot and fading towards the Auntie Annes stand. John Johnson, 6-1 freshmen guard, has a little Aaron Cosby in him. His typical game: log most of his 13 minutes in the first half, taking all four shots from behind the arc, knocking down one or two bombs, a couple missed defensive assignments and topping it all off with some silly turnovers. He'll be good in a few years - maybe Ashton Gibbs-type range - but actually has ARC to his shot.
SOJ: Speaking of Robinson, his field goal percentage is one of the top marks in the Big East. How does he operate down in the paint so efficiently despite being undersized for his position?
CH: "I don't think people realize he's ambidextrous," as Tray Woodall said. It's pretty remarkable that a 6-5 guy can go 13 for 13 from the field against the Henry Sims and Kevin Jones of the Big East. In addition to the ambidextrous talents, it's somewhat of a paradoxical combination. First, he's very patience with his shot selection and "he lets shots come to him rather than search them out," as Jamie Dixon said. But when he does decide to take a shot, which is almost always three feet and under, he has a very quick release, which surprises many bigger, often times, slower defenders.
SOJ: Many people picked the Panthers to finish in the top third of the Big East this year. Do you think there was a flaw in the team that everyone missed when evaluating the Panthers in the preseason? If so, what was it?
CH: I hate to say it, but I think Ashton Gibbs was overrated coming into the year. Many prognosticators, including myself, thought he would develop more of a mid-range game, creating off the dribble and knocking down that 10-15 footer. No matter if Woodall, Theodore or Chris Paul is running the point, it's clear that Gibbs is a shooter, not a scorer. As for flaws, I'll say it again: defense. Pitt hasn't given up this many points in conference play since the 1999-2000 season and I don't think anybody saw this coming. Not even Adam Zagoria.
SOJ: A common theme in college sports is players, when weighing whether or not to go pro, deciding to return to school, then having disappointing campaigns immediately afterwards that hurt their draft stock. Ashton Gibbs seems to fit this mold. Do you think that has weighed on him at all this season, especially with the long losing streak and lower shooting percentages than we're accustomed to seeing from him? If so, has that seemed to affect the team in any way?
CH: Absolutely. In Pitt's last game, a 63-51 loss to USF, Gibbs was pulled with 2:42 left and the game still in reach, after yelling a profanity at the Pitt bench. The losing, the season/career-low numbers being broken every other night and the what-if scenarios have to affect him. Just a guess, but players may have questioned his commitment to the team in the off-season. I'm all about looking out for number one. However, there's a weird understanding at Pitt that you stay here all four years and stay true to the program. It's probably a Pittsburgh thing in general. Bring back the mills.
SOJ: Lastly, this game is extremely important for both teams at this juncture in the season. Give us your prediction for the game, and what is the deciding factor either for Seton Hall or Pitt in that prediction?
CH: Every game is huge from now on out, but all road games are extremely important for any bubble team. Regrettably, I think Seton Hall wins a very close game, something like 66-62, for two reasons. First, the game will be determined by who wins the point guard battle. Despite Woodall playing great against Georgetown and West Virginia, I'm not entirely sold on his recovery (did not practice on Friday due to ab stiffness) and his ability to consistently compete against the better BE guards. He simply hangs on the perimeter too much, whereas Theodore has shown us he can slash, draw contact and get to the line. Secondly, we're lousy on the road. Losing to Depaul and South Florida on the road should tell you something. Yeah, we could get up for the West Viriginia game, because it's a rivalry game, but until we beat a decent opponent away from the Pete, I'm taking the contrarian view.
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