The Pirates welcomed back All-America candidate Jeremy Hazell to their lineup on Wednesday night and he scored a team-high 23 points in a pretty surprising 30 minutes off the bench to lead the Pirates to victory for the second time in their Big East Schedule. They now continue their mini-road trip to Pittsburgh to take on a Panthers team that is not only playing well, they may just be the best team in the Big East.
Here's my scouting report:
2010-11 record: 16-1 (4-0 Big East)
2009-10 record: 25-9 (13-5 Big East; 2nd round NCAAs)
Key losses: Jermaine Dixon
Key returnees: Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee, Travon Woodall, Dante Taylor, Nasir Robinson
This year's version of the Panthers is quite possibly better than last year's squad, which lost Levance Fields, DeJuan Blair and Sam Young yet still finished with 25 wins in the always-tough Big East. This year, the Panthers return everyone of consequence from that team except for Jermaine Dixon, and personnel-wise are the best team in the Big East. They score, they defend all areas, they hustle, they make free throws, they take care of the basketball, they rebound, and they almost never lose at 'The Pete,' where the Pirates have to play them on Saturday.
The Panthers' best player and leading scorer is junior guard Ashton Gibbs. At 16.8 PTS, Gibbs has one of the quickest releases you will ever see, and can flat out stroke it from deep, averaging an out-of-this-world 46% on 121 attempts from three. Gibbs is also an 87% free throw shooter, so fouling him will most certainly not work.
Flanking Gibbs are senior swingman Brad Wanamaker and athletic senior forward Gilbert Brown. Wanamaker is what I like to call a super-glue guy, as he does a little of everything for Jamie Dixon in addition to being a main scorer for the Panthers, averaging 13 PTS, 4.8 REB and 5.2 AST while shooting it at over 50% from the field and 40% from deep. He also gets to the line more than any other Pitt player, making 74% of his free throws. Brown averages 11.6 PTS and 4.5 REB while also making over 45% from deep as one of the most versatile players for Pitt. His athleticism, which can often lead to some breakaway dunks, is his main calling card, and it helps him in every facet of his game including defense.
Down low, the Panthers don't have a guy who can score many points, but with Nasir Robinson and Gary McGhee, they can certainly defend the post and rebound. Robinson checks in at 7.5 PTS and 5.1 REB while McGhee averages 6.9 PTS and 7.3 REB (first on the team) as well as 1.5 BLK. Both of them, as well as post sub Dante Taylor, play physical on both ends down in the post, so the Pirates must counter them by being equally physical. Taylor is averaging over 5 REB in just 15 minutes per game, a stellar rate that he couples with an aggressiveness on the offensive boards, as he gets nearly 3 of those a game.
And then there's Travon Woodall. Woodall flies under the radar because he is not the most talented scorer and is easily the worst shooter of the Pitt regulars (37% from the field, 30% from deep). But Pitt is at their best when Woodall is in the game. This is because Woodall being in the game moves Gibbs to the 2-guard spot, his more natural role. From there, Gibbs can be more effective than as the primary ball handler when Woodall is out of the game.
This team has virtually no weaknesses to exploit. There are a few players on Pitt's roster that are not good free throw shooters (Robinson, McGhee, Taylor, and Talib Zanna), but they are so incredibly well-coached that you won't see those guys with the ball in their hands down the stretch. The Panthers are 143-11 all-time at the Petersen Events Center, making it one of the best home courts in the nation. I'm not going to lie- even with Hazell back, the Pirates are going to need to be at their very best to pull this one off.
PIRATES WILL WIN IF:
- Jordan Theodore builds off the improved game he had against DePaul and contributes on both ends of the floor.
- Herb Pope and Jeff Robinson stay out of foul trouble. The Pirates will need to play their best to beat Pitt, and to play their best, they have to have their best out on the floor, and down low, that's Pope and that's Robinson.
- Jeremy Hazell continues to be brilliant. Hazell has only played 4 games, but if he had enough games to qualify, he would be second in the NATION in offensive rating according to Ken Pomeroy's rankings. That's pretty darn amazing.
PANTHERS WILL WIN IF:
- Their home crowd and student section overwhelm the Pirates. The Oakland Zoo is notorious for being loud and proud, and despite the fact that the Steelers play the Ravens in the afternoon, I expect there to be a good crowd at the Pete for this game.
- McGhee and company own the paint, especially defensively
- Someone other than Gibbs or Wanamaker steps up in crunch time. Something tells me that the Pirates will at least contain Gibbs and/or Wanamaker, so if someone like Gilbert Brown or Travon Woodall is able to step up, the Pirates will be in for a rough night.
This is the best team in the Big East. The good news is that this is the toughest game that remains on the Pirates' schedule, so it all goes semi-downhill from here in terms of tough teams. The Pirates should bring the effort against the Panthers, buoyed by the Hazell Effect. But they're still going to play near-perfect basketball to emerge from Pitt with a W.