Pittsburgh vs California
Onto the game itself. Here's what Pitt presents:
- An outstanding PG: All the talk on CyberBears about how Knight is not in Ridnour or Gardner's class is BS. Knight is the co-Big East player of the year and he IS the Pitt team. Ridnour has Jackson and Jones, Gardner has Walton, Knight has Knight. To compare him, he is quicker than either Luke or Jason, he's significantly better defensively (think AJ Diggs) and he would be the second best 3 point shooter on Cal. His ability to control tempo offensively, penetrate and create and disrupt defensively are special. We all remember the nightmares Brevin Knight caused us, well imagine Brevin with three extra inches of height and a better jumpshot.
- Athleticism: Julius Page, Pitt's SG is a phenomenal run and jump athlete and together he and Knight form the most athletic backcourt Cal has faced all year. Ontario Lett and Jaron Brown are big kids (width wise) but both are very good athletes as well. Pitt is not as physically gifted throughout their roster as say a New Mexico or Fresno State, but their starting five compare favorably in terms of athleticism to any Pac 10 team.
- Defense and Tempo: Pitt is a slow it down team that scores either in transition or by milking down the shot clock and letting Knight make something happen. This keeps the score down. Defensively, although Knight is disruptive, they don't gamble much or force a lot of turnovers. However, they challenge every shot and are particularly adept at stopping the perimeter jump shot (they allowed opponents to shoot a meager 28% from 3 range). They led the Big East in scoring defense and overall allowed opponents to shoot only 39% from the field. They are disciplined and smart on D and rarely give up easy baskets.
Here's what Pitt is not:
- Explosive offensively: Outside of Knight, Pitt does not have many playmakers. For all of Page's athletic ability, he is an inconsistent offensive player (somewhat like Brian Wethers) but he is not as adept as either Shipp or Wethers at creating his own shot. Pitt lacks a significant low post offensive threat, and does not attack the basket offensively preferring to wait for Knight to shoot or create something for a teammate. Where they are deadly is in transition as they can run and jump and Knight is a very good open court passer.
- Tall: Their top five players (in terms of minutes played) are 6', 6'3", 6'4", 6'6" and 6'8". Their 6'8" player is a European (Donatas Zavackas) whose much more of a perimeter player (very good 3 point shooter). Lett at 6'6" and 260lbs is a real load especially given that he moves well. They do have some size off the bench, but neither plays a whole lot. 6'10" sophomore Toree Morris is 280lbs and he will be tough to move around on either end of the floor. They also have a skinny 6'10" freshman who plays around 10 mpg.
- Experienced: This Pitt team has but one senior, Chad Johnson. They play an eight man rotation and four of those players are freshman or sophomores. None of the players have ever been to the NCAA tournament.
Keys to the Game:
- Hope to stop Cal inside forcing the Bears to get their points off jump shots or dribble penetration. Pitt has the size, strength and quickness to give Shipp and Wethers problems if they need to create their own offense continually. Pitt's ability to defend Hughes, Sampson and Tamir as well as Shipp and Wethers down low is the real question mark. Foul trouble for their big players could be a real problem.
- Control tempo: Pitt will be content to run down the shot clock and rely on Knight to create. They hope to frustrate Cal into the same pace forcing Cal's guards to create and make things happen late in the shot clock.
- Hit the boards hard: Pitt dominated the Big East in rebounding margins, but against the better and taller teams they faced they struggled. Still, they have the strength and athleticism to give the Bears fits on the O boards and they will need to work hard to keep the taller Cal team off the O boards.
The keys for Cal:
- Turnover margin. Outside of Knight, this is a team that does not take great care of the ball. They do not have the same discipline offensively as they do on defense. Because they are so patient offensively, Cal can overplay the passing lanes and force turnovers.
- Contain Knight. I don't believe Shantay can keep Knight in front of him and although Diggs will do a much better job of cutting of Knight's penetration, Brandin will likely be able to shoot over either Cal point guard. Cal did a much better job containing quick PGs this year by making it hard for them to finish inside (with our shot blockers) and by switching better. We also can switch defenders on Knight, putting in the long armed Gates or the quick hands of Diggs to try and frustrate Knight into shooting more from the perimeter.
- Dominate the paint: I really, really believe that Pitt will have trouble scoring down low as well as preventing Cal from getting points inside. Tamir should have some success as a passer and a scorer (if he can find his confidence) and Hughes and Sampson have the length and quickness to make life difficult for Pitt. If Cal can block out effectively and hammer the O boards we should be able to win this game.
In the final analysis, this game will be a war of attrition with both teams being so stingy defensively. So long as Cal can contain Knight's penetration (he can score 20 so long as his teammates don't get involved) and at least be neutral on the boards, we should beat Pitt. The Big East is showing its true colors and the conference is clearly a notch below the P10. Pitt has struggled against taller, athletic front courts and they don't have Cal's experience and poise. Offensively, Cal takes better care of the ball and has more balance. Pitt is overly reliant on Knight and they will struggle to score on the Bears in the paint. Unlike Penn, Oregon or Arizona, Pitt does not have the 3 point shooters to consistently beat you from outside. Page did get hot against CCSU, but his season percentage would tell you that is the exception and not the rule. If the game is close, Pitt's FT shooting is an Achilles heel as well.
Watch closely the battle of the boards and the ability of Cal's perimeter players to shoot the 3. I think Pitt will have to pay extra attention to Cal in the post and that should free up RFK, Legans and Shipp to hit some threes. If Sampson and Tamir continue to struggle offensively and Knight is a force on both ends, Cal will have problems. But, I believe Cal has more skilled players and more experience and in the end that will prove to be the difference.