On Sunday, the Bears have earned the right to play in the Round of 32 against a current Top 10 National Team - the Pittsburgh Panthers. To becomea Top 10 National Team, I believe it takes that step-by-step building process, and in my opinion...I personally believe that success has come a little too quickly for the Pitt Panthers. I simply don't believe they have the experience to be slotted in that grouping. There's no doubting their successful record this season however, and Pitt Head Coach Ben Howland has to be one of the leaders for National Coach of the Year honors. The Panthers play this year reminds me so much of an older version of Cal's bay-archival, the Stanford Cardinal. There's just something very reminiscent about Stanford when I look at how this Pitt team plays, and what kind of players this Pitt team has...that corresponds with my memory of those Stanford teams. In fact, its eerie. They seem to just have that sameball movement, and that same concept of how to win. First of all, here are the 8 players that Ben Howland goes with;
- 6'4 230 lbs Sophomore SF Jaron Brown
- 6'8 235 lbs Junior PF Donatas Zavackas
- 6'10 280 lbs Sophomore C Toree Morris
- 6'3 190 lbs Sophomore SG Julius Page
- 6'0 180 lbs Junior Brandin Knight
- 6'7 235 lbs Frosh SF Chevon Troutman
- 6'5 215 lbs Senior SG Chad Johnson
- 6'6 265 lbs Junior PF Ontario Lett
It starts off with the point guard slot, where junior Brandin Knight is the Mr Everything on this team - as was his older brother Brevin for Stanford. That in itself is a pretty eye-raising similarity. Brandin is a scorer whenthe Panthers need a bucket, an assist man when the Panthers need a pass, and a pretty adept pick-pocket when Coach Howland is screaming in need of defense. And in case you missed it, the All-American will also rebound, anddraw traps to free up his teammates if the team needs that too. He is a bigger, taller, and more adept version of his brother - though both have the same confidence levels. At the 2-guard is Julius Page, a 6'3 sophomore fromBuffalo, NY...who simply makes me think back to the days of Dion Cross, the former Stanford SG. He's an 'off-the-screen' shooter who is very adept at knocking down the 3-ball - and if you doubt me, just take a look at his 4 for 6 3-point shooting against Central Connecticut State in Pitt's 1st Round win, 71-54. Page is the only pure 2-guard on the team, similar to Cross for Stanford as well for a two year period.
The frontcourt is a bit different than those Cardinal teams, but realize quickly that most of their scoring truly comes from the backcourt - and that's been true all year. Those Stanford teams that featured Knight & Cross were the primary scorers for the Cardinal as well, though Tim Young picked up some baskets from time to time. And trust me, Knight & Page will shoot the most of the shots on Sunday unquestionably, `specially if they are losing. Donatas Zavackas is probably the best frontcourt three point shooter the team has, and he will step out and play on the perimeter a lot. Zavackas is used often as the perimeter screen guy for Page or Knight in Ben Howland's offense. Ontario Lett is the best inside player Pitt has in my opinion...and he reminds me of Mark Madsen some. He's a load at 6'6, 265 lbs, and a strong rebounder since he takes up space. I think Lett is the key to the Pitt inside game, if they do go down low. I love Lett's toughness. The freshman, Chevon Troutman is a talented wing...but he's faced difficulty hitting the boards a number of times this year. Troutman will take needless shots from time to time too. The only other player of any significance is the lone Senior, Chad Johnson. He is somewhat like Cal's Ryan Forehan-Kelly, a wing-guard who brings solid defense to the table. Don't pay any attention to the Starter at the Center Position for Pitt, Toree Morris, as Morris played 11 minutes combined in the past 2 games for Ben Howland. The 1st game went to overtime as well (against Uconn in the Big East Final), and the last game was regulation (Central Connecticut State, 1st Round NCAA's).
There are a number of things that I like about this Pitt team, but depth is not one of them. They basically play 7 guys - and I think in the last round (and all year for that matter), Cal has shown the ability to use their height and depth to beat teams over and over again. Coach Ben Howland had a lot more depth when he Coached at Northern Arizona, so this seems like an oddity for his teams. Both Cal & Pitt played some very soft non-conference schedules too, but I certainly feel that their was more depth in the Pac-10 than the Big East this year. And that's why I question them so quickly as one of the 10 best teams in the NCAA's this year. Lastly, I do not like so much pressure on one player (Knight)...and the lack of height is going to be a problem for a team that plays Cal.
- 6'11 225 lbs Senior Center Solomon Hughes
- 6'11 235 lbs Frosh Center Jamal Sampson
- 6'5 220 lbs Junior Small Forward Joe Shipp
- 6'5 210 lbs Junior Shooting Guard Brian Wethers
- 5'10 175 lbs Junior Point Guard Shantay Legans
Key off the Bench;
- 6'10 250 lbs Frosh Power Forward Amit Tamir
- 5'10 160 lbs Sophomore Point Guard A. J. Diggs
- 6'5 195 lbs Senior Shooting Guard Ryan Forehan-Kelly
- 6'3 200 lbs Senior Shooting Guard Dennis Gates
Cal brings to the table a very strong team, and I think you can throw the seeding out in this game. The one thing you can not throw out though is that Brandin Knight is a winner, and this is in all honesty - a home game. But we'll talk about that a bit later. First of all, lets breakdown what Cal will look to do against Pitt.
The main weapon that Cal will have is their height, and their post-game. Truthfully, Pitt does not have an answer for the size that Solomon Hughes, Jamal Sampson, and Amit Tamir bring to the table...and if the Bears are going to win with that size, it takes patience. A team like Pitt might get going outside from the perimeter, and they might take a lead early on. But if the Bears continue to apply the pressure on the post, they'll get easy shots. In my opinion, I wouldn't try to attack Brandin Knight...I would simply work around him. If the Bears can create foul trouble on the Panthers, they are going to win this game. Defensively, the Bears have a chance to completely shut down the inside game...and I think Jamal Sampson has to feel good about his 1st game performance. As I have said all year, he's the "biggest" difference between Cal's team this year, and the team 1 year ago. Jamal's ability to intimidate shots and to go up and get the rebounds because of his size is what separates those teams.
I believe Joe Shipp is again the X-factor for this game, and the match-up featuring him & Jaron Brown will be a big key to the game. Shipp's ability to score in the post usually brings him his greatest confidence - and I think he'll again do that on Sunday. He was so big for Cal on Friday, putting the defender on his hip and knocking down any shot he basically wanted. Those shots inside always help his perimeter game. On the same page, Amit Tamir vs Donatas Zavackus will be another key match-up. There is a lot of similarity in their game, though Tamir might be more confident offensively...and he's definitely a better passer. If Solomon Hughes can contribute 10 points, I really believe the Bears win this game.
In the backcourt match-up's, Cal will definitely have its hands-full with Page & Knight. More than anything else, the Bears have to play confident. The one thing about Knight & Page is that they are extremely confident in their game, and I mean...ultra-confident. They are the heart & soul of the Panthers team...and they are the main reason why Pitt wins, or why they lose. Brian Wethers and Dennis Gates will certainly be tasked on Page...and A.J Diggs and Shantay Legans are going to face a bigger version of Jason Gardner in Knight. But all that experience against a guard of Gardner's magnitude should really help out the Bears. Stay Tuned to that match-up. Keep in mind, A.J Diggs is about as tough an on the ball defender as there is in College Basketball, and Cal was the #1 Defense in the Pac-10. That was quite an accomplishment.
For the 2nd consecutive game, the Bears face a thin team. And again, they are also facing a team that is pretty much a hometown favorite here in Pittsburgh. If the Bears methodically work the ball down low and get easy shots over the Pitt team for 40 minutes, there's no doubt in my mind they will win this game. The Bears play with confidence, and they win - its as simple as that. The one thing last year taught the Bears (and unlike Cal, this is the 1st Pitt's 1st appearance since 1993 in the NCAA Tournament) is that toughness, moxie, and desire win NCAA Tournament games. They are going to face a team that has that moxie, and I think after Cal's 1st Round win...and again, after they score a couple of times down on the post...the Bears will be able to see the Sweet 16. I'll predict a 75-65 Cal win, and I believe the MVP will go to Jamal Sampson. His height, shot-blocking, rebounding, and scoring make him the best player on the Court on Sunday, and I believe he'll be huge. If he gets position, you can count it. One thing to keep in mind though, this game will obviously be a close one. No game in the NCAA Tournament is easy, there's just too much at stake.