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Pittsburgh’s margin for error shrinks with third straight loss

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Since shooting 51% from the field in an 83-79 win at Maryland on January 25 Pittsburgh has struggled offensively, shooting no better than 41% in any of the seven games that followed. Game number seven in that dubious streak came on Sunday night, with the Panthers shooting 37% in a 71-66 home loss to Florida State.

Lamar Patterson (eight rebounds and five assists) scored 21 points but he needed 21 shots to do so, making eight of those attempts. Much has been made of Patterson’s shooting struggles and that’s understandable as he is Pittsburgh’s most versatile offensive option. But the fact of the matter is that the senior wing wasn’t the only Panther having issues against a Florida State team that has the size and athleticism needed to perform well defensively.

Talib Zanna, the team’s second-leading scorer with an average of 12.2 points per game, scored just seven points on 1-for-4 shooting against Florida State’s deep and athletic front court. Zanna did grab 14 rebounds, but after shooting 2-for-11 in Pitt’s loss at North Carolina last weekend he needed to bounce back and it didn’t happen. In Patterson, Zanna and Cameron Wright (12 points) the Panthers have three players who are asked to carry much of the offensive load on a nightly basis, and when any of those three struggle Pittsburgh will have issues scoring.

Also of note on Sunday night was Florida State outscoring Pittsburgh 27-18 from the foul line, with the Seminoles’ free throw rate (67.4) well above the rate allowed by the Panthers in ACC play (39.9). With the Panthers not being an explosive offensive team points from the foul line and points off of turnovers (14-10 FSU edge) can be the difference between winning and losing close games.

Does Sunday’s loss mean that the Panthers are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament? No. The selection committee has to take 68 teams, and it’s difficult to think that there are 36 at-large teams better than the Panthers regardless of their non-conference resume. And it should be noted that Pitt’s best non-conference win gained some value on Saturday as Stanford knocked off No. 23 UCLA.

But Sunday’s defeat does mean that with four games remaining before the ACC tournament the Panthers’ margin for error shrinks ever so slightly. Three of those four games (Boston College, Notre Dame and Clemson) are on the road, with N.C. State visiting Pittsburgh on March 3.

Take care of business in those games and Jamie Dixon’s team will be fine. But a couple missteps could leave the Panthers with work to do going into the ACC tournament.

What should we make of No. 25 Pitt?

Jaye Crockett, Lamar Patterson
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I’ve figured it out.

I have the answer.

I know who this Pitt team is.

They’re the guy who uses a photoshopped picture of himself from 15 years ago on his Match.com profile, over-exaggerating life accomplishments and his salary to make himself appear more attractive to potential dates.

The Panthers entered the weekend as the No. 13 team on KenPom, the No. 23 team in the RPI and the No. 25 team in the AP poll. They then proceeded to scor 62 points in a double-overtime win over Virginia Tech at home, which came days after they scored 59 points in an overtime win against Miami. That came on the heels of a two-game losing streak where the Panthers fell at home to Duke and Virginia.

Their efficiency profile makes the Panthers look like a top 25 team, but when you see this team in person, it’s hard to take that assertion seriously. On Saturday, Lamar Patterson finished with five points on 1-for-9 shooting, four turnovers and four airballs as he dealt with a thumb injury that was clearly affecting his ability to shoot as much as it disrupted his confidence. As a result, the Panther’s offense looked downright atrocious at times, and the fact that they gave up 17 offensive rebounds to the Hokies didn’t help, either.

It’s easy to blame the injury for that, and it would be wrong to say that it played no role. But this wasn’t the first time Pitt’s offensive struggled, and Patterson was awesome against Miami, when the Hurricanes took them to overtime.

In fact, when you looked at the Panthers’ body of work, it’s more surprising that they were able to climb as high in the polls as they did than anything. Pitt’s best win this season came against a Stanford team that is still very much on the NCAA tournament bubble, which means that if the season ended today, there is no guarantee that Jamie Dixon’s club would own a win over a team destined for the Big Dance.

Next week, Pitt plays Syracuse at home and at UNC. We’re at a point where an 0-2 week from the Panthers could legitimately put Pitt into the NIT even if they finish the season with six losses.

Think about that.

“But their profile looked so good on KenPom!”

Pitt efficiency-catfished all of us.

No. 18 Pitt loses to No. 17 Duke, will enter February without a quality win

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Pitt had a chance to notch themselves their first noteworthy victory of the season as they hosted No. 17 Duke on Monday evening.

Instead, the No. 18 Panthers were run off the floor in the second half, losing 80-65 in a game where Quinn Cook, Duke’s starting point guard, was slowed with an ankle injury. Lamar Patterson, who had entered the game looking like he deserved to be in the conversation for the National Player of the Year award, finished with 14 points, many of which came when the outcome was all-but decided, on 4-for-14 shooting and had just a single assist to go along with five turnovers. He was completely shutdown by Duke’s Rodney Hood.

Losing to a streaking Duke team, one that has now won their last five games by an average of just under 20 points, is hardly a “bad loss”. But it’s not a promising one, either. When the Panthers lost at Syracuse earlier this month, they stormed back on the road, taking a late lead before Tyler Ennis did Tyler Ennis things in the final two minutes.

There was hope after that loss. Pitt looked like they deserved to be in the conversation for best team in the ACC. That’s what happens when you lose in the final minutes on the road against the undisputed ACC favorite.

But this?

There is no way to spin this loss as a positive.

The Panthers were simply outclassed on Monday night, and while 40 minute’s worth of poor basketball is a tough way to judge the true ability of a team, the bottom-line is the eye-test is all we have when it comes to judging Pitt. They have not beaten anyone this season. Their best win right now? Pick one: Stanford, Clemson, at N.C. State, at Maryland. None of those teams are heading to the NCAA tournament this season barring a major late-season turnaround.

We went over this on Saturday. Barring a collapse, the Panthers are likely headed to the NCAA tournament. But they only have three games left against top 50 RPI opponents, four if you include North Carolina, who is currently 51st. UNC is the only one of those four games that is on the road.

Let’s assume, for arguments sake, that they lose at home to Syracuse but win out the rest of their league games and get beat by Duke in the ACC tournament. Pitt would have a record somewhere in the neighborhood of 28-5 with an NCAA tournament resume that is befitting of a mid-major conference champion.

That’s a problem.

Pitt is going to enter February without a single win over an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

They get Virginia on Sunday. Will that be the day they finally breakthrough?

Even in defeat, No. 22 Pittsburgh has look of ACC contender

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While there were no questions regarding the validity of No. 2 Syracuse as a contender in the ACC, with the Orange picked in the preseason poll to finish second behind No. 23 Duke, the same can’t be said of No. 22 Pittsburgh. While Jamie Dixon’s Panthers entered the game undefeated in ACC play and 16-1 overall, there were some who wondered just how good Pittsburgh was.

Why? It likely had a lot to do with their non-conference slate, with Pittsburgh’s best win coming against Stanford and the majority of their wins coming against teams with triple-digit computer rankings. But to focus solely on that would be a mistake, as players such as Lamar Patterson, Cameron Wright and Talib Zanna have improved since last season and have shown themselves to be formidable talents in the ACC.

If anything Pitt’s 59-54 loss at the Carrier Dome showed a national audience that, even in defeat, the Panthers are without a doubt a contender in the ACC. Pitt attacked the Syracuse zone well, using good ball movement to hit the high post and short corner, but the issue for them was the number of missed opportunities close to the basket.

Syracuse, which entered the game ranked fourth in the country in block percentage, finished the game with seven blocked shots and Pittsburgh made just four of their ten layup/dunk attempts. According to hoop-math.com the Panthers entered Saturday shooting 54.3% at the rim and while that 14-percent margin may not look like much, against a team as good as Syracuse those missed opportunities can prove costly.

That was the case for Pittsburgh, who can also take positives such as their effort on the boards away from the loss. The Panthers rebounded 44.4% of their misses, scoring 19 second-chance points as a result, and limited Syracuse to just three fast-break points. While the Orange aren’t the running team we’ve come accustomed to seeing over the years they have the ability to bury teams if allowed to get out in the open floor. Pittsburgh, due in part to their ability to crash the offensive glass, took that away.

No team as good as Pittsburgh has much interest in “moral victories,” and that’s how it should be. Under Dixon the Panthers have accomplished too much over the years to think that simply hanging tough at the Carrier Dome is cause for celebration. With options such as Patterson, Wright, Zanna and point guard James Robinson they’re more than capable of winning a game of this magnitude despite falling short on Saturday.

Pittsburgh likely needed no convincing of that even before Saturday afternoon. If anything, they showed others what they already knew themselves: they’re a contender for the ACC title.

Pitt dominates N.C. State on the road in their ACC opener

Jimmy V Classic
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Lamar Patterson scored 17 of his 22 points in the second half and added eight boards, six assists and two steals as Pitt went into Raleigh and knocked off N.C. State 74-62.

It was an impressive way for the Panthers to kick off their ACC tenure, but the score doesn’t tell you the full extent of the domination shown by Jamie Dixon’s team. N.C. State was up 17-2 before the Panthers woke up. Over the final 35 minutes of the game, the Panthers outscored the Wolfpack 72-45.

That’s a nice road win to start the year, but the news gets better for Pitt.

Remember back in the Jimmy V Classic when we all bemoaned the fact that the Panthers, who had played a weak non-conference schedule to date, had lost to Cincinnati? That the lasting memory that we would have of this team was losing the one time they were actually challenged outside of the league?

Well, that loss doesn’t look quite as bad now. Cincinnati went into Memphis and pasted the No. 18 Tigers, 69-53, in their American opener.

So what, if anything, does this tell us about Pitt?

Well, not all that much. N.C. State is probably not a tournament team this season. There is some talent on that roster — their freshman class of Cat Barber, Kyle Washington and BeeJay Anya is promising — but this team is still a year or two away from really competing. The Panthers probably should win games in Raleigh.

But keep in mind: the ACC is wide open this year. Syracuse has been the most impressive in the conference, but they are by no means unbeatable. UNC and Duke have talent but haven’t exactly been consistent. Beyond that, there are probably six teams that can finish in fourth place in the league, and the Panthers are very much a part of that group.

We can crack plenty of jokes about their schedule because they deserve it, but for my money, Pitt is still one of the top 25 teams in the country.

College Basketball Talk’s Player of the Year Power Rankings

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The 2013-2014 season is sure to be a thrilling Player of the Year race, so to keep track of it, we will be posting weekly Player of the Year Power Rankings for your reading goodness.

Who’d we miss? Who’s ranked too high? We love to overlook your team’s best player and overrate your rival’s superstar.

1) Shabazz Napier, UConn: Napier’s already made countless big shots in big moments this season, shining in UConn’s wins over Florida, Indiana and Boston College. He’s averaging 15.3 points, 7.0 boards, 5.9 assists and shooting 57.1% from three.

2) Jabari Parker, Duke: Parker is the nation’s best all-around offensive weapon. He’s more-or-less unstoppable at this level, averaging 22.1 points with shooting splits of 57.1/46.7/72.5. Should I mention, he’s averaging 1.6 blocks and 1.1 steals?

3) Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: Smart struggled when Oklahoma State went down to Orlando for the Old Spice Classic, but he’s still posting 19.8 points, 4.9 boards, 3.8 assists and 2.9 steals per night. He’s cut down on turnovers and improved his three-point percentage as well.

4) Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle has come back to earth a bit the past two games, getting exposed a bit against the length of Providence and Baylor. And he still averaged 14.0 points, 8.0 boards and 4.0 assists in those two games.

5) Doug McDermott, Creighton: McDermott bounced back from a rough week out in California by putting up 33 points on in-state rival Nebraska. The concern: if he struggled against GW’s Isaiah Armwood, what happens in the Big East?

6) Nick Johnson, Arizona: Johnson struggled a bit from the floor against UNLV, finishing just 4-for-15 from the floor, but he’s the most important player on Arizona’s roster. He’s a terrific defender, a 16.6 ppg-scorer and their best perimeter threat with Gabe York struggling.

7) Keith Appling, Michigan State: Appling needed to drop a bit after the loss to UNC, but it won’t hurt him too much in the long-term as long as he can shake off the hard-fall he took on his hip.

8) Russ Smith, Louisville: Is Smith trying to prove he’s a point guard? Since dropping 36 in a loss to North Carolina, he’s scored 37 points in three games, nothing 17 assists in the process.

9) Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Carson is still dealing with a nagging ankle injury that bothered him during The Wooden Legacy, but he had 23 points in a win over DePaul on Friday.

10) Lamar Patterson, Pitt: Patterson’s numbers are stellar — 16.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 5.1 apg, 1.8 spg, 42.1% 3PT — and Pitt’s undefeated, but this is nothing more than a courtesy mention until the Panthers beat someone relevant.

Others: Kyle Anderson, Ron Baker, Jordan Clarkson, Dylon Cormier, Aaron Craft, Tyler Haws, Alex Kirk, Rodney Hood, Roberto Nelson, Marcus Paige, Elfrid Payton, Elijah Pittman, Juwan Staten, T.J. Warren, Chaz Williams, Joseph Young