The Pitt basketball team got their “signature win” on Sunday, blasting 15th ranked Duke at the Petersen Events Center. Pitt never trailed in the game, dominating the Blue Devils in just about every imaginable category. The Panthers have now won 3 of their last 4, giving them 20 wins on the season for the 12th time in 13 years under Jamie Dixon. Pitt also improved to 9-7 in the ACC, ensuring they will not have a 2nd consecutive losing season in conference play.
The Panthers played their best game of the season (ESPN’s BPI index scored the game a 99.2 out of 100) by dismantling Duke every way possible. Pitt outrebounded Duke 39-20, with 16 offensive rebounds, which means the Panthers got rebounds on 57% of their own misses. Pitt also owned the paint, outscoring Duke 24-6 inside; while keeping Duke’s starting Center Marshall Plumlee scoreless for the 1st time all season. The Panthers were also extremely efficient on offense, shooting 50% from the field and 40% from 3-point range. They entered the game top 10 in the nation in both assists per game and assist to FGM ratio, and bettered their season marks Sunday with 20 assists on 28 made field goals.
This performance on Sunday was not a one-time thing for Pitt. This is something that has been in the works over the past few weeks.
Noticing an unbalanced roster, with just 1 senior returning from last year’s team, Dixon looked for a quick fix, adding three transfer seniors and two junior college transfers, to go with his lone true freshman recruit seemed like the way to go. However, that meant that nearly half (6 of 13) of Dixon’s roster this season was new to the team and new to his system. Adding new guys into a system is always tough work that takes time, but this year Dixon had 6 returning players (Cam Johnson redshirted last year) with just as many newcomers. Trying to get all 13 guys to mesh and play together didn’t go as smoothly as Dixon and the team would have hoped, but it looks like they have found it now.
Recently Dixon has changed his rotations around the results are positive. Pitt is 3-1 in their last 4 games, and if it weren’t for a complete collapse against Louisville they could be on a 4-game win streak. In those games the line-up and player rotation has been drastically different. Dixon has gone back to the guys that know the system. The guys that have been here and have played together.
Check out the production level of these 3 players over the past 4 games:
Season Average: 31 minutes, 10 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 made FT’s, 1 made 3pt
LAST 4 GAMES:
vs Wake Forest: 44 minutes, 22 points, 9 assists, 10 rebounds, 7 made FT’s
@ Syracuse: 40 minutes, 13 points, 5 assists, 2 rebounds, 3 made 3pt
vs Louisville: 38 minutes, 12 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds, 4 made FT’s
vs Duke: 36 minutes, 14 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds, 4 made FT’s, 2 made 3pt
Season Average: 13 minutes, 3 rebounds, .5 assists, 5.1 points
LAST 4 GAMES:
vs Wake Forest: 16 minutes, 4 rebounds, 1 assists, 6 points
@ Syracuse: 19 minutes, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 6 points
vs Louisville: 28 minutes, 5 rebounds, 1 assists, 17 points
vs Duke: 24 minutes, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 10 points
Season Average: 19 minutes, 2 rebounds, 6.5 points, 5.1 FGA
LAST 4 GAMES:
vs Wake Forest: 44 minutes, 7 rebounds, 23 points, 14 shots
@ Syracuse: 23 minutes, 2 rebounds, 5 points, 3 shots
vs Louisville: 30 minutes, 1 rebound, 6 points, 4 shots
vs Duke: 32 minutes, 8 rebounds, 9 points, 9 shots.
These three players have been the spark to the recent run that Pitt is on. Yes, Michael Young and Jamel Artis are still the guys that carry the team, but these are the pieces to the puzzle. Dixon is playing these guys more minutes and they are producing.
Robinson has been a Mr. Consistent at Pitt, starting in 130 games as a Panther. Unfortunately, it took Dixon about 125 games to let Robinson loose a little. He is a horse coming down the homestretch of his career and Dixon is riding him hard to finish strong. Robinson hadn’t played more than 36 minutes all season and only 13 times in his career until this recent stretch. Robinson has responded by being more aggressive on offense, with a season high 22 points against Wake Forest. He has also been getting to the line much more, which when you shoot 79% is a good thing. Dixon has noticed a difference in Robinson too, saying after Sunday’s win, “(He) is playing his best basketball.”
Luther had only played more than 20 minutes twice this season, and now he has done it in back to back games. His ability to step outside and hit a mid-range jumper or even a 3-pointer, makes him a tough match-up for opposing defenses. He is also big enough that he can bang with the big guys when needed too. He makes Pitt much more athletic in the post.
Jones has also added a spark to the line-up since moving into the starting role. Jones has played over 23 minutes just 6 times this year, and that includes each of the last 5 games. Not only is Jones Pitt’s best on-ball perimeter defender, he is also an athletic wing player, who when he gets hot, can really hurt an opposing defense. He did as much against Wake Forest, going for a season high 23 points, while making 5 3-pointers.
When you give out more minutes to certain players, you have to pull back the minutes from others. Notice the playing time of the three graduate transfers during those last 4 games.
Rafael Maia, Sterling Smith and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa all have seen their playing time drop off big time during this little run. Maia is quickly accumulating “Toree Morris starts”. Morris was a staple for getting an official “start” in the official scorebook, but was quickly subbed out and then forgotten about on the bench. Maia is headed that way of late. He had been averaging almost 13 minutes a game and playing 7+ minutes in all but 2 games. He has now played 7 or less in 2 of the last 3. In the Syracuse game he was almost non-existent, playing just 4 minutes.
Alonzo Nelson-Ododa is another big body brought in by Jamie to sure up the interior defense, but he just isn’t fitting and now his minutes are disappearing as well. ANO has averaged 8.6 minutes a game, but has played 11 minutes TOTAL in the past 4. He also hasn’t scored a point since January. Sterling Smith is the final senior transfer, and he was a starter for most of the season. He averaged 19.8 points per game and played 20+ minutes in 18 of the 1st 22 games. In the past 4 games he has played 10, 9, 6 and 5 minutes and hasn’t scored a point.
Give Dixon credit for trying to re-shape the roster with the graduate transfers, but coming from Brown, Richmond and Coppin State into the ACC is a big jump to make, and these three guys just weren’t up for it.
Give Dixon even more credit for cutting the cord on those three. With March quickly approaching and guys like Luther, Jones and Cam Johnson all improving, Dixon made the right call to shorten his bench and play the guys that he recruited, that know the system and that he trusts.
Pitt still has their flaws, but they also are playing their best basketball heading into March. They are playing with a more athletic line-up that fits better in the ACC. It will also be a better fit for tournament play, both in DC for the conference tournament, as well as in the NCAA Tournament.
Pitt fans remember the run that UCONN made a few years back with Kemba Walker. I’m not saying that is in store for these Panthers, but they are a whole lot better equipped for that type of run now, then they were just a few weeks ago.