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.