PITT LEFT SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
By Ray Mernagh
Took a break last night from the media section and took in the Pitt vs. Louisville game — with my wife — from some spectacular seats at just about mid-court about 5 rows behind the Oakland Zoo (shout out to my man for the hookup). It’s been a strange month and a half for Pitt basketball as the Panthers were 0-6 in Big East action heading into last night’s Game Day festivities.
Heading into the Pete, and all day long for that matter, I kept going back to one thought: This would be the night that Pitt gets the 1,000 pound gorilla off their backs and actually posts a mark in the W column. Part of the reason for the feeling was the performances Pitt turned in following their beat-down at the hands of Rutgers, a game that finally exposed the Panthers for what they are (not very good) and gave Mike Rice a good three-to-four hours on the phone calling recruits afterwards. Rutgers saw blood in the water, saw prey willing to give up the fight, and pounced like any Shark worth its saltwater does.
The Marquette game gave some hope as the effort was much better and Ashton Gibbs’ shooting returned with the help of a move back to his natural shooting guard position. Still, some quick turnovers in the second half ultimately doomed the Panthers. Syracuse followed about 48 hours later and again, Pitt battled before ultimately losing in a respectable manner. So heading into this weekend, and all the hype that surrounds a campus when Dukie V comes to town, something was telling me Pitt might just hand Louisville an L.
Boy was I wrong. Tray Woodall returned and looked like a guy who hasn’t played in forever should, at first he really made the offense click but the rustiness kicked in when he picked up 2 quick fouls and had to sit. Dante Taylor looked like he wanted to be anywhere else for almost the entire game, save for a quick burst of a couple of quick dunks followed by his normal routine of shenanigans that follow any positive play he makes.
The one question that came to mind watching Taylor last night was should he even be playing anything but spot minutes at this point? On one play he was out filling the lane on a rare transition opportunity when, inexplicably, he decided it was a better idea to try and screen a defender and let his guard try to score rather then make himself big and available for a dunk. Malcolm Gilbert is a freshman 7-footer on the bench. I understand Malcolm Gilbert is not the answer right now, but neither is Dante Taylor, and since Malcolm Gilbert’s red shirt was burned right after the departure of Montreal’s Gift — and here I always thought Montreal’s Gift to the world was Guy La Fleur — why not try to put him in a position to be the answer in the future by playing him some?
Pitt has an impossible time stopping dribble penetration and because of that coach Jamie Dixon has correctly gone to more zone defense than any of his former teams have employed. They also give up way too many layups and dunks and three-pointers. Chane Behanen feasted on Pitt’s front line last night to the tune of 19 points but in reality, Behanen would’ve had 30 if the Cards had gone to him more in the low block. Almost two months ago I wrote the following piece for the Pittsburgh Sports Report. The piece closes with a number of questions before stating that Pitt looks like a team that would give anything just to get a win.
Here we are almost sixty days later and they’re still looking for that elusive W. Ten years of regular season excellence has brought an expectation of 25-plus wins a year in this city. That’s Pitt basketball’s norm or as Mike Tomlin often says about the NFL’s most decorated franchise “the standard is the standard.”
For many reasons that standard isn’t being met this season. Jamie Dixon, talking on his post-game radio show afterwards, is the first one to recognize it.
Dixon has had a rather adversity-free run as a head coach at the high major level, at least on the court. He’s had the kind of success that 98-99% of his peers would kill for. This season, and how he responds to it across the board at all levels of his program —recruiting, strategy, philosophy, a willingness to look at what went wrong so fast and how to fix it — will be a huge test for him.
Help is on the way in the form of a Big Kiwi, who, despite what was written on a CBS blog last week, will be a really strong addition to the lineup. Will he be a savior? Define savior — last time I checked this is basketball and not religion. I just know anyone that has his tools, at his size, and puts 24 and 13 on my man Nerlens Noel — Noel is only the most impressive defensive big in amateur basketball with an offensive game that’s catching up and a future lottery pick — will definitely be a huge help.
But Adams, and James Robinson, and whoever the key third member of the class ends up being, don’t arrive until next season.
This season continues with Providence — a team featuring Vincent Council and Big East Rookie of the Year candidate Buckets Henton, a team that pounded last nights opponent Louisville by a million not that long ago — coming in Wednesday night. After that it’s a Saturday afternoon game with Georgetown and their young stud Otto Porter.
The questions remain and, unfortunately, the season continues for a team that’s now lost eight straight games.
That team, their coach, and their fan base are desperately searching for answers to the current ills that plague them.
The problem is those answers might not exist.
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