PITTSBURGH — For the second straight game this week, Pitt utilized a 2-3 zone defense to hold an opponent well below its season shooting average.
On Wednesday, it was the NC State Wolfpack that shot 33.8 percent from the floor. Saturday, Syracuse shot 35.3 percent.
Both times, Pitt lost by single digits, by four against the Wolfpack on Wednesday and by a 60-55 margin against the Orange on Saturday.
Pitt had offensive issues of their own in both, including a season-long trend of going on scoring droughts an inopportune times. But the Panthers seem to have something in the zone defense.
After the game, Pitt’s KenPom.com defensive efficiency metric rose to No. 127. The Panthers held both NC State (.98) and Syracuse (.95) below one point per possession. If they had posted numbers like that over the course of the season, they’d comfortably be one of the top 75 defending teams in the country.
Of course, parsing two games out of a 22-game season is hardly fair, but those two games neatly coincide with the emergence of the 2-3 zone as Pitt’s primary defense, replacing the man-to-man look that head coach Kevin Stallings prefers.
Pitt also played a good amount of zone at Syracuse on Jan. 16 and held the Orange to .99 points per possession in that game. At Duke, Pitt played more man-to-man and gave up 1.23 points per possession.
“I thought we did everything defensively that we needed to do,” Stallings said after the Syracuse loss. “I think we’re getting better on the defensive end.”
If the current trend holds, it seems clear that Pitt is better suited to a zone look than man-to-man and that when they play zone, Pitt has the ability to be an above-average defensive unit. That’s not something that Pitt has shown at any point this year while playing man-to-man.
That’s a good thing for Pitt’s chances of winning another game this season, because Pitt’s offense has fallen into a rut. The Panthers have gotten big performances over the last four games out of Parker Stewart (23 points at Syracuse and 15 at Duke), Jared Wilson-Frame (22 points against NC State and 18 against Syracuse) and Marcus Carr (16 points and 12 assists against Syracuse).
The problem for Pitt is that they haven’t been able to get more than one or two of their offensive weapons going at the same time. Against Syracuse’s zone, Pitt moved Carr into the foul line area to run the offense from inside out. That’s how he recorded a career-high 12 assists, second most as a Pitt freshman only to Travon Woodall’s 13 from a game against Binghamton in 2009.
But Stallings thought that Carr could have had even more assists if his teammates would have just knocked down some shots. Pitt shot 10 of 38 (26.3 percent) in the second half and were 9 of 34 (26.5 percent) from 3-point range on the afternoon.
“That was what was so frustrating,” Stallings said. “We were getting really good shots. … It was just phenomenal to me, not in a good way, how many times we got great looks after we got (Carr) the ball and we didn’t score. But that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
STEWART SHUT DOWN
The Orange made it clear that they weren’t going to let Stewart do what he had done to them in the Carrier Dome, when he made seven 3-pointers. They extended their zone to meet him and push him off the 3-point line and made him a focus of their preparation.
“I thought we did a good job on Parker,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “He can shoot it.”
Stewart finished with six points on 2 of 9 shooting, 2 of 8 from 3-point range.
SPED UP LATE?
Pitt finished on a 2-for-15 shooting drought that coincided with when Syracuse took a seven-point lead to pull ahead after a back-and-forth first 30 minutes. But Carr didn’t think the Panthers were rushing into things because of the deficit.
“I didn’t think we got sped up at all,” Carr said. “We had good, open looks tonight and some of them fell, some of them didn’t. Most of them didn’t. That’s pretty much why we lost.”
Khameron Davis left the game late with an ugly head injury when he was slammed to the court when Tyus Battle landed on top of him. Davis did not return, but Stallings said he could have, if necessary.
“He got gashed up above his eye,” Stallings said. “He seemed to be OK. (Athletic trainer) Tony (Salesi) told me he could go back in the game at the end. … I’m hopeful. It didn’t seem like there were any concussion symptoms or anything like that.”
Davis had seven points and six rebounds in 33 minutes before his injury.