The Pitt basketball team has been one big question mark so far this season. They have played 22 games already and it is still tough to tell what this team really is. That might be because 11 of their 12 non-conference games were against very low level competition and without being be critical of the non-conference schedule (that will come at another time), it is tough to see what a team is made out of when you play teams like University of Phoenix and ITT Tech for the 1st two months of the season.
Now they are a month into the conference schedule and we are getting a better look at this Pitt team. It is a team that is 6-5 against the non-cupcakes on their schedule, 6-4 in the ACC, plus and a 13-point home loss to a good Purdue team. It is a team that sits at 17-5 overall and in the top half of the ACC standings after the 1st week of February, a spot most teams would love to be. It is a team that averages almost 80 points a game, but also one that allows over 66. Pitt is currently 7th in the ACC standings, but of their six conference wins, only one comes from a team ahead of them (Notre Dame). They are 1-3 against the six teams the trail, with road games this week against the two teams they have yet to play of the group (Miami & UNC). Pitt is 5-1 against the bottom seven teams in the conference, having not played Wake Forest, who is 1-10 in conference play. Is this Pitt team just an average team? Maybe there are. Maybe they are a team that beats up on the lesser opponents, but can’t match up to the better ones. Then again, maybe they are the team we saw in the 1st half on Saturday against #9 Virginia, which played the Cavaliers to a near draw in the opening 20 minutes. Or they could be the team that finished the game against Virginia team, getting outscored 35-23 in the 2nd half, and a team that looked like they quit on the court after giving up a 12-0 run early in the 2nd half.
With just a month left in the regular season there are still a lot of question marks about this team.
Do they even have an identity? If so, do they know what their identity is? Does the coaching staff?
I know what the team wants to be. I know what the coaching staff tells us they are. They want to be a style we have never seen from a Pitt basketball team under Jamie Dixon. They want to be athletic. They want to be explosive. They want to push the pace and score in transition. They want to play faster and get more offensive possessions, so their dynamic scorers get more chances. Sounds about right, no?
Now let me tell you what they are. They are slow. They are 288th (out of 351) in the country in possessions per game.
Pitt averages 69 possessions a game, up from 63.7 possessions last year, but the entire country is up on average 4 to 5 possessions per game due to the change to the 30-second shot clock this season.
Basically, Pitt isn’t playing any faster this year than in years past. They aren’t more up-tempo. The only reason they are getting more possessions is because of a rule change that is making EVERYONE get more possessions per game. As a matter of fact, Pitt is playing slower this year than the average Jamie Dixon team’s at Pitt have played. In his 12 years at Pitt, Dixon’s teams have finished with an average final ranking of 280th in possessions per game. As conference play continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see this year’s team be the 7th consecutive Pitt team to be outside the Top 300 in possession per game.
Pitt is not only NOT some high-powered offensive juggernaut that they want to be, but they are also a historically bad defensive team. Pitt is currently giving up over 66 points per game, which is on pace to be the highest average allowed since the final year of the Ralph Willard Era.
Look at the Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AdjO) and the Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (AdjD) for this season. These are two analytical stats that represent a team’s success rate every offensive and defensive possession based on 100 possessions, adjusted based on opponent’s style of play. (These are numbers valued by both Jamie Dixon and his predecessor Ben Howland, and were key in the development of the style of play Pitt fans have grown accustomed to seeing from their Panthers.) In Dixon’s 12 full seasons at Pitt, his teams have regularly found themselves ranked in the Top 30 in both AdjO and AdjD. They have been in the Top 30 offensively 10 of 12 years, including two seasons they finished in the Top 5. This year they are currently 22nd, scoring 114.2 points per 100 possessions. On the defensive side they have been in the Top 30 eight of 12 seasons, including his 1st year, when they led the nation. This year’s squad is ranked 150th, giving up 102.3 points per 100 possessions. That would be the 2nd worst in his career, which came last year. The infamous CBI season was the only year in Dixon’s career that the team was outside the Top 30 in both AdjO (31st nationally) and AdjD (149).
This tells me that Pitt is pretty efficient offensively, as they usually are, but lousy defensively. So why aren’t they playing faster? Why isn’t Dixon pushing the tempo? Pitt obviously isn’t going to win with defense this season and the roster is clearly made up of guys that can get up and down the floor. Dixon should just embrace what he has on the roster, swallow his pride a bit and play the style that best fits his team, even if it isn’t a style he is accustomed to coaching.
In the past we have heard former players say that Dixon is too controlling and didn’t give his players the freedom to make plays outside of his offense. This year’s team has a point guard in James Robinson that has the best career assist-to-turnover ratio in NCAA history, if you can’t trust him to make good decisions, who can you trust? Robinson also has two dynamic scorers playing alongside him in Jamel Artis and Michael Young, giving the Panthers their best offensive trio since the Elite 8 season with Sam Young, Levance Field and Dejuan Blair.
Artis and Young both average over 15 ppg, each shooting better than 50% from the field. To top it off, both can handle the ball and excel playing in space and running the court. Pitt also has spot up shooters in Sterling Smith and Cameron Johnson that each shoot better than 40% from 3-point range, that can help spread the court. With the addition of Sheldon Jeter into the starting line-up recently, you now also have a dynamic slasher that can step out and hit an occasional 15 to 18 foot jumper, but is best driving to the hoop, attacking the rim.
This team is built to play fast, be athletic and score points.
THAT is the identity of this Pitt team.
Hopefully Dixon finds it before it is too late.