Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

2014 NCAA Tournament Preview: PIttsburgh

Happy Tournament, BuffNation!

I hope we never get to the point that we as fans take for granted what seeing the name 'Colorado' in the field of 68 means.  This should be a joyous time for all true basketball fans, and, as the program continues to progress, and the Dance tickets become more and more common place, it would be a shame for us to lose perspective.  Anytime you make the Tournament is special, even when you've strung together more consecutive appearances than anyone else in your conference (*cough*).

So, enjoy tomorrow.  Take the opportunity to skip out on work and meet with your friends to cheer on the team.  It's America's national sporting holiday, after all, and, even if only for the briefest of moments, everyone's attention should be on Orlando and our Buffs.

Hit it, Barry!


Tip-off from the Amway Center in Orlando, FL is set for Thursday at approximately 11:40am MT.  Televised coverage can be found on both TBS and March Madness Live, with the radio call coming on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met -

Contrary to what the athletic department first reported this week, CU and Pitt have met on the hardwood before. We'll excuse the SID's office for spotty record keeping in this case, because the game took play all the way back on the day after Christmas, 1931.  Considering the country was suffering through the height of the Great Depression, it's understandable that a few game reports would get misplaced.

For the now updated record, Pitt won a 25-23 barn-burner.  Nope that's not a typo, there were only 48 points scored (and you though DU was an unwatchably slow mess this season...).  In the game, Colorado's Fenton Challgren lead all performers with nine points, which is an average half from most modern stars.  Of course, this was in the era before the jump shot and the shot clock, when passing the ball around midcourt for two minutes was a viable offensive strategy, so the minimalist scoring totals are understandable.
A look back to a long-forgotten era of hoops.  From:
In fact, playing keep-away offense is exactly how the Panthers won 82 years ago. In a game the Silver and Gold (the 'Buffaloes' nickname was still two and a half years off, remember) never lead, Pitt held a 25-19 lead with six minutes to go.  As CU stormed back with four quick (relative...) points, the Panthers began to wing the ball around midcourt in a perfect imitation of a modern soccer stalling action.  Colorado never got the ball back after pulling within two, which puts the four-corners to shame.

I have to say, that's a pretty chickenshit way to win a ballgame.  There is a reason, after all, that the shot clock was invented.  Had that garbage continued into the television age, basketball would be about as popular as cricket is in this country (no offense, @JennBerg).

Regardless, thanks to CU Associate SID Curtis Snyder and friend of the blog @BupsJones for doing a little digging into CU's distant basketball past. It made for a delightful little trip through the ages.

The Panthers in '13-'14 -

Returning to the modern era, the Pitt Panthers strike me as a criminally under-seeded team.  Not only are they a top-20 offensive and top-40 defensive club, but, of their nine losses this season, only one of them (an ugly seven-point home loss to NC State two weeks ago) came against a team outside of the KenPom top-40.  While the RPI has them as the #39 team in the country, every other rating system has them in the top-20.  They are legit and a threat, not only to Colorado, but the overall #1 Florida, who loom as the third-round matchup for tomorrow's winner. If I'm the Gators, I'm pissed that a team of the Panthers' caliber could be my opponent on the Tournament's first weekend.
I'm really not happy to be seeing these guys in round one (or two, if you care what the NCAA thinks).
Pittsburgh is powered by their efficient offense.  With a pedestrian pace (292nd nationally), they need to take advantage of every offensive possession they get.  By limiting turnovers (15.9% turnover rate, 59th nationally) and grabbing key second chances (37.8% offensive rebounding rate, 19th nationally), they do just that, and pop along at a sterling 115.2 adjusted points per possession.  This is not a team that is going to shoot itself out of many games, taking their time to find a good shot (average 19 seconds per possession), as opposed to just any shot. Against CU's staunch shot percentage defense, that could be key, as the Buffs often get by through their opponents losing patience on the offensive end.  One saving grace may be Pitt's lack of outside shooters, as barely over 21% of their points this season have come from beyond the arc (306th nationally).

Probably the biggest concern for me is the fact that Pittsburgh looks to be able to negate CU's biggest advantage on the floor: team defensive rebounding.  Throughout all the trials and tribulations this season, defensive rebounding has remained a constant source of strength for the Buffs.  They only allow a shockingly-low 26% offensive rebounding rate (7th nationally), which has sustained them since the Dinwiddie injury.  The Panthers, however, are about as good as they come on the offensive glass, leaving the winning margins decidedly smaller against Pitt.  If CU can't win the battle of the boards, they're going to lose, and probably lose by a big margin - a fact Coach Boyle understands.
Pitt knows how to come up with the difficult rebounds.
On defense, it's less alarming, but the Panthers are still one of the better crews in the country.  By limiting fast break opportunities (18.8%, 50th nationally) and throwing quick double-teams at opponents, they force long possessions.  With CU's penchant for getting bogged down in their back-court motion, I would bet the farm on the Buffs suffering through another offensive quagmire at some point.  I'm especially interested to see how Josh Scott deals with the inevitable double-teams.  He has struggled the last few weeks with making the quick decisions necessary to use the trap to his advantage, and continued hesitation could kill Colorado. Jelly absolutely needs to touch the ball as many times as possible, but if he keeps getting flustered by an extra body in front of him, it negates any offensive advantage created by his touches.

The big key for Pittsburgh is that they're getting healthy and playing their best basketball at the right time. Much like CU with Spencer Dinwiddie, the Panthers suffered through their own devastating season-ending injury to key reserve wing Durand Johnson.  Coupled with some knocks and bruises to bankable stars Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, the team was in a bad way in early February, and lost five of seven ballgames. But they learned to play without Johnson, and Patterson and Zanna eventually got healthy.  Now, with the calendar flipped to March, their losing February is behind them, and I'm damn scared.

Star Players -

It'd be disrespectful to the Panther program to say they're a two-man team, but it's hard to look much farther down the roster than the superstar inside-outside combo of Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna.

Patterson, a 6-5 senior, is a stud wing, and one of the premier offensive pieces in the country.  Averaging a healthy 18/5/4, he comes in 8th in KenPom's Player of the Year standings, and has essentially carried the team all season long.  He takes nearly 40% of his team's three-pointers, and boasts an efficiency rating above 113 despite taking nearly 30% of all shots when he's on the court, all while still boasting an assist rate in the national top-75. For his efforts, he was selected as a second team All-ACC performer, which may actually be underselling his season. The Panthers depend on him to ignite the attack, and the ball will touch his hands on most, if not all, possessions.
Patterson is a hell of a talent.
Xavier Johnson will get the first crack at corralling the Central Pennsylvania product, which makes sense since I'd rather not see Patterson get a chance to use his height and size advantage against smaller players like Xavier Talton and Askia Booker.  Still, Lamar is an expert at getting to the rim, drawing nearly five fouls per 40.  CU desperately needs Johnson on the court, and a few quick whistles on him could severely complicate matters.  Hopefully, the zebras call it loose, and XJ gets to use his length and physicality to neutralize Pitt's senior leader.

While Patterson is clearly the lead dog in Pittsburgh, Zanna, the beefy senior power forward from Nigeria, may be the more dangerous of the two.  Posting a 13/9 this season, he's coming off of a spectacular ACC tournament where he averaged an even better 17/13, including a MONSTER 19/21 performance in the Panthers' quarterfinal win over North Carolina.  During the tournament, Patterson acknowledged that it's Pitt's intention every game to get the big fella going, saying "when you see him going, it just gets the ball rolling."  It's easy to understand why.  A forceful performance from Zanna keeps defensive attention inside, allowing Patterson a freer hand at running the offense.
Zanna will pose an interesting challenge.
Talib is your prototypical Pitt banger, in the DeJuan Blair mold.  Zanna comes into tomorrow tied for 15th nationally with 112 offensive boards on a top-25 rate, and is even better than Lamar at getting to the line. He's been so impressive this year that Coach Boyle was driven to compare him to familiar faces Aaron Gordon and Richard Solomon, both who have dominated CU at times this season.  I don't know if I'd go that far, though, and the Buffs might be catching a break with him fighting a bout of the flu.  Josh Scott certainly isn't going to back down, as he's played and defeated bigger (Bachynski) and more talented (Embiid) post men this season.  As much as XJ locking down Patterson will tell the tale of the game, Jelly bringing his lunch pail to bear on Zanna may be even more vital. Colorado can't give up ground on the boards to the Panthers, so Scott will need to stand the international senior up.

Beyond the primary duo, the remainder of the Pittsburgh starting lineup consists of James Robinson, Cameron Wright, and Michael Young.  Robinson, a 6-3 sophomore, is the team's point guard, and has played to an efficient 122 ORtg.  Wright, a 6-4 guard, is the only other player on the roster averaging double-figure scoring, while posting a steal rate in the national top-50.  Young, a 6-8 freshman, plays off of Zanna in the paint, and looks to be a similar terror for the ACC in future years.
Wright leads the second tier of Pittsburgh's talent.
Past them, the bench is still reeling from the loss of super sixth man Durand Johnson, and mostly consists of a pair of freshmen - Josh Newkirk and Jamel Artis.  We'll mostly see the five tomorrow.

Coaching - 

Head coach Jamie Dixon has been ruling the roost in Oakland for 11 seasons now, and has established a tradition of success that has cemented a once dormant program in the national consciousness.  Over his tenure, the Panthers rank in the nation's top-5 for winning percentage, surpassing coaches blessed with far more talent and resources.  There's a reason BasketBuffs around the fanbase groaned when the Panthers popped up in the bracket - Dixon has made a name for his program as being physical, tough, and, above all else, successful.
Dixon has been one of the more successful coaches in the nation.
Still, the Panthers' postseason chances are being met with tepid optimism from their fanbase, with some good reason.  Pitt under Dixon has become notorious for underachieving this time of year.  In the last decade, the program is only 6-15 against the spread in the month of Madness, taking a first weekend exit in six of nine chances, and seeing their efficiency dip 1.5 points per possession.  More recently, they've failed to escape the first weekend in each of their last three trips to the Dance, even when they were a #1 seed in 2011. Really, the only knock against Dixon is these annual March swoons.  As the Buffs have proven to be very capable March warriors under Tad Boyle (13-6 in postseason tournaments), maybe I'm being overly anxious.

Here's to hoping Dixon's postseason struggles continue tomorrow!

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 16-5.  Against the spread: 11-10.  Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +0.86 pts/gm)

Lines as of Wednesday @ 9pm - CU +6 1/2

I just don't see it.  Pittsburgh is grossly under-seeded and skilled in the areas that the Buffs would need to exploit (rebounding, transition defense) in order to advance.  Sure, they're a little too star-centric, and a poor game from either Patterson or Zanna could end the proceedings immediately, but I'm expecting a Colorado loss, nonetheless.  It shouldn't be a 'blow-out,' per se - the pace will just be too slow - but an 'upset' of the lower-seeded Panthers just doesn't seem to be in the cards.

As for a score, maybe a reverse of the 59-56 score this team seems to like so much?  Sure, that would just be too damn fitting.

Pitt 59 - CU 56

If you're looking for a path for victory for our Buffs, however, consider the ultimate game of #TadBall. Possession by possession, CU turns the game into a battle of inches, with open sets and easy looks about as frequent as a rainy day in Boulder.  The Buffs are a bunch of opportunistic bastards, after all, and an inside game, such as in this scenario, may be their only opportunity to steal a win.  The sport of basketball would take a hit, with Colorado winning the most unwatchable affair in the history of the Tournament, but it would still be a win.

Even then, Pittsburgh isn't exactly uncomfortable down in the muck.  They played in a 48 possession affair with old Big East rival Cincinnati earlier this season, which might as well have been broadcast in black and white. The ultimate game of #TadBall wouldn't necessarily bring the desired result, which would make the unwatchable mess even uglier.  Still, it's worth a shot...


1 comment:

Rilam36 said...

Great analysis. Buffs face a tough matchup against a underrated opponent. I think a key to the Buffs success today is in the depth of their bench. As you point out, Pitt's bench has the depth of a kiddie pool. I think Coach Boyle will need to get his bench in, playing extra physical, and hope this gets in the heads of the Pitt starters (wish Boyle had pushed this strategy more with 'Zona). Foul trouble on both sides could be key to neutralizing the talent gap. I'd love to see Ben Mills foul out while repeatedly hacking Zanna...hard.