Pitt’s great offensively, but their defense is the key

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Pitt beat Syracuse 74-66 on Monday night to hand the Orange their first loss of the season and move into sole possession of first place in the Big East.

The win was an impressive one by the Panthers. They jumped out to a 19-0 lead on Syracuse and, technically, never looked back. The Panthers never trailed, but their 19-0 lead lasted for all of seven minutes, as the Orange immediately put a 17-0 run on the Panthers to get right back into the game. After trading 7-0 runs, the two teams then spent the final 1:15 of the first half and the first nine minutes of the second half trading baskets.

It was quite impressive, actually. Every single time the Orange would cut the lead to one, Pitt would answer with a score of their own. Every chance the Orange had to take the lead, Pitt would get a stop.

Syracuse never did get a lead. They only tied the game once, on a James Southerland three with 13:52 left. Travon Woodall immediately responded with a three pointer of his own that sparked a 12-3 run, and the Orange never seriously threatened Pitt the rest of the game.

It was prototypical Pitt basketball.

Offensively, they were a thing of beauty to watch. If I were a basketball coach, I would take the tape of this game and use it to show my team how to beat a 2-3 zone. The Panthers didn’t settle for shooting jumpers of the zone. They routinely got the ball into the high post area, be it off of a pass or as the result of penetration with the dribble. From their, the Panthers feasted on short jumpers and dump downs to Nasir Robinson, who finished with 21 points on 8-12 shooting.

The most interesting part of the Panther’s attack was their use of ball screens. Generally, when a team attacks a 2-3 zone, they will have three guards on the perimeter and two big men on either block, flashing to the foul line when the ball is on the other side of the floor and diving to the block when the ball is on their side of the floor. What Pitt did throughout the game was that when they flashed their post to the foul line, he would set a ball screen on one of the two Syracuse defenders at the top of the zone. Either the point guard would have a lane to drive through the middle of the zone, or, when the other Syracuse guard came over to cut off that penetration, the weak side wing would have an even bigger gap to attack. Gilbert Brown and Brad Wanamaker thrived on that weak side wing last night, getting a seemingly endless run of eight foot jumpers.

And that is exactly who this Pitt team is this year.

They execute to perfection on the offensive end of the floor. They have nine or ten guys that full buy into what Jamie Dixon wants to run, and when they do, they get open shot after open shot. When they miss those open shots, 45.6% of the time Pitt gets the offensive rebound. Combine that with a low turnover percentage, and its no wonder the Panthers lead the country in offensive efficiency.

What everyone is waiting to see from these Panthers, however, is whether or not they are going to be able to make a run through the NCAA Tournament. As good as they have been under Dixon, they have never made a Final Four. Some of it is bad luck — remember this — but part of their reputation for being unable to get past the Sweet 16 is deserved. Dixon, despite being one of the winningest coaches in the country during his time as the head of the Pitt program, has one made one Elite 8, back in 2009.

Can they do it this year?

Well, believe it or not, it all depends on Pitt’s defense. Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker are physical, but they are not great defenders on the perimeter. Robinson and Gary McGhee are big and strong up front, but both can have trouble with longer, more athletic forwards. CJ Fair was the perfect example. While McGhee held Rick Jackson to eight points and 10 boards, the freshman Fair finished with 16 points and nine rebounds.

There were times where the Panthers looked absolutely suffocating last night, but there were also times where they allowed to Orange to get just about any shot they wanted. And Syracuse isn’t exactly a great offensive team when they have Kris Joseph.

The key to winning in March is being able to get big stops.

The Panthers have looked better at the defensive end the past few weeks, jumping from 50th in Kenpom’s rankings to 38th.

If that improvement continues, Pitt could make a run at Houston.

But for now, I think they will settle with being all alone in first place in the Big East.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Walter McCarty dismissed as Evansville head coach

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Walter McCarty was fired as Evansville’s head coach on Tuesday night.

The school officially announced the decision after additional reports of alleged misconduct. On administrative leave since Dec. 26, McCarty was under investigation for Title IX violations.

Bennie Seltzer will remain interim head coach.

“While the investigation of potential Title IX violations will continue under University policies, UE has decided that, based on the facts uncovered thus far, it is necessary to terminate Mr. McCarty’s employment immediately,” the release said.

“There is no place at UE for any behavior by any University employee or student that jeopardizes the safety and security of others,”

The statement also said McCarty received “warnings last year regarding inappropriate off-court behavior with members of the campus community.”

The 45-year-old McCarty was in his second season with the Purple Aces. After an 11-21 finish in the first season, Evansville had a promising 9-4 start. Evansville made national news when the beat No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena earlier this season.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Powell vs. Pritchard vs. Howard vs. Toppin

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At this point, I do feel like we have reached a point where there is finally a top tier in the College Basketball Player of the Year race.

Myles Powell. Payton Pritchard. Markus Howard. Obi Toppin. That’s the order that I have it in, but there is a strong and legitimate argument for all four to be No. 1 on this list. I wouldn’t call any of them wrong.

This doesn’t mean that the players from outside those ranks cannot win the award — it is so wide open this year, anyone with a couple of big weeks will be in the mix — but as of this moment in time, those are the likely favorites.

Anyway, here is the definitive Player of the Year power rankings:

1. MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

Stats: 22.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 34.9 3PT%

Powell had his best week of the season last week, averaging 29.0 points — including 21.0 points in the second half — as he led the Pirates to a pair of come-from-behind wins at Butler and at Saint John’s. It took Powell a while to get to this point, as he dealt with an ankle injury and a concussion, but there is no questioning the fact that he is the leader and the go-to guy for a Seton Hall team that is currently sitting at No. 10 in the AP poll and in sole possession of first place in the Big East.

And here’s the ironic part in all of this: It took a Powell injury for Seton Hall to really find themselves as a team. They made their leap on Dec. 19th, when the Pirates beat Maryland at home without Powell in the lineup. That’s when the supporting cast found their confidence. That’s when Seton Hall became a team, not just a bunch of guys playing next to Myles Powell.

2. PAYTON PRITCHARD, Oregon

Stats: 19.5 ppg, 5.7 apg, 4.4 rpg, 41.2 3PT%

No one in college basketball has had more, or bigger, moments this season. He scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half and overtime, including 15 in the final five minutes, in a win at Michigan. He had 16 points and six assists in a come-from-behind win against Seton Hall in the Battle 4 Atlantis. He hit a number of big shots late as Oregon knocked off Memphis in November, the only game against a quality opponent that James Wiseman played. Then there was Saturday’s game at Washington, when Pritchard hit a 30-footer to tie the game and force overtime then made a pair of big shots in the extra frame, including this ridiculous game-winner:

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Payton Pritchard called game!!!!!!

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He has carried the Ducks this season. He’s the reason this team is a top ten team.

3. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette

Stats: 28.2 ppg, 2.9 apg, 43.1% 3PT, 9.8 3PAs

The numbers themselves are ridiculous.

Howard is leading the nation in scoring at 28.2 points. He’s shooting better than 43 percent from three on nearly 10 threes attempted per game. He’s doing it while posting a significantly higher offensive rating than Myles Powell and a significantly higher usage rate than Payton Pritchard.

To put his season into context, there is one other high-major player since 1992 that has made better than 42 percent of his threes while shooting more than nine threes per game: J.J. Redick during his college basketball Player of the Year season in 2005-06. Stephen Curry did the same during the 2007-08 season, when he led Davidson to within one shot of the Final Four.

Markus Howard has been the most lethal offensive weapon in college basketball, and if Marquette was a title contender this season, he’s easily be No. 1 on this list.

4. OBI TOPPIN, Dayton

Stats: 19.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 35.3% 3PT

What Obi Toppin provides for Dayton cannot be overstated. He’s putting up massive numbers this season, and he’s doing it while being the piece that makes everything Anthony Grant wants to run work so well. The breakdown below explains it all:

The thing that’s tough about placing Toppin on this list is that he is not the go-to guy for Dayton. Jalen Crutcher is going to be the player that takes and makes all of the big shots. See: Kansas, when he forced overtime, and Saint Louis, when he won the game in overtime.

But the reason Dayton is in a position to do things like take Kansas to overtime, get ranked in the top ten and have a shot at winning a national title is because of what Toppin opens up for them every possession other than the final one.

He may not have the moments we all remember, but Dayton is as good as they because of him. That matters.

5. LUKA GARZA, Iowa

Stats: 22.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 1.6 bpg

Garza has been relentless this season, and he is absolutely one of the most improved players in the country. The reason that he’s just outside the top four, for me, is because of the defensive side of the ball. I talk through that more in this piece.

6. CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State

Stats: 18.1 ppg, 6.1 apg, 2.4 rpg

Winston has been really, really good this year. He has not been quite as good as expected — he was the consensus preseason college basketball player of the year — and neither has Michigan State, which hurts him a bit. I think he’ll be back in the mix by the time the season ends, particularly if the Spartans play their way back into being one of the nation’s elite teams.

7. JARED BUTLER, Baylor

Stats: 16.1 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.5 spg, 38.1% 3PT

It’s getting harder and harder to ignore the fact that the sophomore point guard is the best player on the best team in college basketball. That’s worth something in the Player of the Year race.

8. JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

Stats: 19.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 42.7% 3PT

On the plus side, Louisville once again looks like a team that can win the ACC, get to a Final Four and win a national title now that David Johnson has taken the point guard reins, and Nwora is unquestionably the best player on the roster. On the down side, he really hasn’t shown up in Louisville’s biggest games. That’s a delicate balance.

9. VERNON CAREY, Duke

Stats: 17.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.8 bpg

Carey looked like a much bigger player in this race before Duke lost two games last week in large part due to the ability to Miami and Louisville to expose Carey on the defensive end of the floor. Coach K has fixed issues like this before. We’ll see what he has up his sleeve this year.

10. MALACHI FLYNN, San Diego State

Stats: 16.5 ppg, 5.0 apg, 3.6 rpg, 40.4% 3PT

Malachi Flynn is the best player, the leader, of the only team in college basketball that remains undefeated. And the reason they are still undefeated is because of him: It was his three that allowed the Aztecs to avoid defeat at the hands of San Jose State back in December.

Three Things To Know: Shaka’s seat heats up, Baylor survives, Virginia doesn’t

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It was a slow night for college hoops on Monday, but there is still plenty to talk about after some weird results.

Here are the three things you need to know:

1. SHAKA’S SEAT IS HEATING UP

The Shaka Smart era at Texas feels like it has hit an inflection point.

On Monday night, the Longhorns went into Morgantown, W.V., and found themselves wishing Country Roads would take them home before the first half came to a close. No. 14 West Virginia, coming off of blowout loss at Kansas State on Saturday, used a 28-2 run over a 10 minute stretch in the first half to turn a 15-13 lead into a 43-15 blowout. They would go on to win 97-59.

The loss dropped Texas to 12-6 on the season and 2-4 in the Big 12. The Longhorns certainly are not out of it just yet — three of their four Big 12 losses came against teams that currently rank in the top six at KenPom — but it’s getting harder and harder to defend the situation that’s brewing in Austin. Texas has now lost four of their last six and five of their last eight. They are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the second straight season and for the third time in four years.

But perhaps the biggest concern is that the Longhorns just don’t seem to be growing as a program. Last year, while Texas ended up missing the tournament, they finished as a top 25 team on KenPom and made a run all the way to the NIT title. It’s worth noting that before the tournament started, they were already a top 30 team on KenPom; their ranking wasn’t skewed by getting hot for three weeks in a tournament no one cares about.

The problem this season is that there has been no progression. Texas has been a program under Shaka that has hung their hat on defense, but this is the worst defensive team he has had in his tenure. That becomes even more of an issue when you factor in that they cannot score. They’re 111th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, which is what happens when your offense is, essentially, a spread ball-screen into a contested three.

KenPom has Texas favored to win just three more games the rest of the season. They’re projected to finish 17-14 overall and 7-11 in the Big 12.

That’s not good.

2. NO. 1 BAYLOR SURVIVES

It looked like Baylor was going to cruise to a pretty easy win at home against Oklahoma, but the Sooners had other ideas. They hung around long enough in the second half to make things interesting late. Oklahoma hit back-to-back threes in a 40 second span to cut a 59-51 lead to 59-57 with 41 seconds left, and after Baylor couldn’t find a way to score on their next possession, Austin Reaves cut off a 3-on-1 break to flare to the corner and fire up a wide-open, go-ahead three with less than five seconds left.

He missed.

Baylor won.

And No. 1 lived to fight another day.

3. VIRGINIA LOSES AGAIN

The reigning national champions lost for the fourth time in their last five games on Monday night, this time falling at home against N.C. State, 53-51.

Like Oklahoma, Virginia had a shot to win the game at the buzzer, as N.C. State fouled up three and then missed free throws of their own at the other end. But Virginia is the 346th-best three-point shooting team in the country for a reason, and Casey Morsell missed the game-winner as time expired.

At this point, it’s getting harder to see how Virginia is going to find a way to play their way into the NCAA tournament.

Chris Mack: David Johnson’s shoulder ‘is fine’

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The biggest concern coming out of Louisville’s win at Duke on Saturday evening was the status of David Johnson’s shoulder.

Johnson was the best player on the floor for Louisville, finishing with 19 points, seven assists, four boards, three steals and two blocks as the Cardinals landed a much-needed win in Cameron. But with three minutes left in the game, he landed on his surgically-repaired left shoulder and had to leave the game. He returned to the bench, but he did not return to the game.

Head coach Chris Mack did not seem overly concerned about the injury after the game, and he confirmed as much in a conference call on Monday.

“The shoulder is fine,” Mack said. “He’s just a little sore, but he’ll practice the next couple of days and we fully expect him to play on Wednesday.”

Bracketology: Welcome to the top line, San Diego State

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Here is the latest NCAA tournament bracketology projection.

Welcome to the top line, San Diego State.  The Aztecs join Baylor, Gonzaga, and Kansas as No. 1 seeds in our latest bracket update.  SDSU remains the only unbeaten team in college hoops, buoyed by wins over tournament teams Iowa, Creighton and BYU.

The West-leaning geographical slate of top seeds means someone has to go East.  As SDSU is the fourth overall seed, that adventure belongs to them.  Several additional power conference teams are pushing for the top line, too – including Florida State, Michigan State and surging Seton Hall.  And let’s not forget about Louisville, a preseason top seed.  The Cardinals put together an impressive road win at Duke on Saturday.

The latest look at where our NCAA tournament bracketology projection stands …

UPDATED: January 20, 2020

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION Virginia Tech vs. Georgetown
WEST REGION NC State vs. VCU
SOUTH REGION  PR VIEW-AM vs. NORFOLK ST
WEST REGION MONMOUTH vs. ST. FRANCIS (PA)

SOUTH Houston                           WEST – Los Angeles
Omaha Spokane
1) BAYLOR 1) GONZAGA
16) PV-AM / NORFOLK ST 16) MONMOUTH / ST. FRANCIS (PA)
8) Arkansas 8) Illinois
9) Memphis 9) HOUSTON
Tampa Sacramento
5) Colorado 5) Arizona
12) EAST TENNESSEE ST 12) NC State / VCU
4) Maryland 4) Iowa
13) S.F. AUSTIN 13) NEW MEXICO ST
St. Louis Greensboro
6) Marquette 6) Michigan
11) NORTHERN IOWA 11) Saint Mary’s
3) LOUISVILLE 3) Duke
14) NORTH TEXAS 14) LITTLE ROCK
Albany Spokane
7) Wisconsin 7) LSU
10) USC 10) Oklahoma
2) SETON HALL 2) Oregon
15) WILLIAM-MARY 15) UC-IRVINE
EAST – New York MIDWEST – Indianapolis
Sacramento Omaha
1) SAN DIEGO STATE 1) Kansas
16) RADFORD 16) MONTANA
8) Rutgers 8) Indiana
9) STANFORD 9) Florida
Albany Cleveland
5) Kentucky 5) Creighton
12) LIBERTY 12) YALE
4) Villanova 4) DAYTON
13) AKRON 13) VERMONT
Greensboro St. Louis
6) Penn State 6) Auburn
11) Virginia Tech / Georgetown 11) BYU
3) West Virginia 3) Butler
14) COLGATE 14) WRIGHT STATE
Tampa Cleveland
7) Ohio State 7) Wichita State
10) DePaul 10) Texas Tech
2) Florida State 2) MICHIGAN STATE
15) AUSTIN PEAY 15) NORTH DAKOTA ST

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
USC Virginia Tech Purdue Washington
DePaul NC State Minnesota Saint Louis
Saint Mary’s Georgetown Arizona State St. John’s
BYU VCU Xavier Richmond

Top Seed Line
Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas, San Diego State
Seed List

Breakdown by Conference …
Big Ten (10)
Big East (7)
ACC (5)
SEC (5)

Big 12 (5)
Pac 12 (5)
American (3)

West Coast (3)
Atlantic 10 (2)
Mountain West (1)