Look at the Panthers' starters. Only one of the five (point guard Levance Fields) was a Top 100 recruit coming out of high school, and he was ranked #93 on RSCI. The other four – Gray at center, Kendall at power forward, Cook at small forward, and Graves at the two guard – were not national recruits. Gray, Kendall, and Graves played very little their first couple of years on campus as they backed up older players. Cook transferred to Pitt from East Carolina, which tells you something about the level of his initial recruitment.
Granted, three of the Panthers' top four reserves were considered Top 100 players, but two of the three – Tyrell Biggs and Sam Young – are sophomores playing behind seniors Gray and Kendall, respectively. Junior guard Keith Benjamin was ranked #81 on RSCI in the Class of 2004, while sharp-shooting combo guard Ron Ramon, who was not highly-recruited, is coming off the bench after starting a year ago.
Over the years Pittsburgh has develop a well-earned reputation for aggressive, physical play, especially on defense. This year's team fits that mold. After five conference games the Panthers rank first in the league in scoring defense at 57.2 ppg. This high ranking is due in part to Pitt's ability to defend three-pointers. Opponents are shooting only 28.0% from behind the arc, good for third in the league. (MU is second at 27.2%.) Another factor is that Coach Dixon's squad is second in the league in rebounding defense. Their front line does an excellent job of limiting opponents' offensive boards, which should lead to an interesting situation since MU is second in the conference in offensive rebounds at 16.6 per game (compared to 11.0 offensive boards per game for Pitt).
Pitt's success on defense starts with intense ball pressure on the perimeter. Fields, Ramon, and Graves are all excellent on-ball defenders, and Benjamin is very athletic. Cook is the most athletic of the group, but his defensive effort is sometimes inconsistent, though it appears to be improving as he gains more exposure to the Panthers' defensive mindset. Because of Pitt's depth across the three perimeter positions, Dixon is able to keep his players fresh. They will present a considerable challenge for MU's quartet of guards.
As good as most of the guards are individually on defense, however, the best all-around defender on the team is probably Kendall. He can match up with power forwards in the paint, but he's also quick enough and long enough to defend on the perimeter. He is a terrific team defender who has excellent court vision. He combines a sense of anticipation with solid decision-making, which often leads to a blocked shot or a charging call.
In the middle Gray is not the quickest or most athletic pivot man, but he is 7'0", and he is strong. He can be taken off the dribble if he comes away from the basket, but that won't do MU much good as Marquette's post players almost never take a mid-range jump shot and hardly ever put the ball on the floor and go to the hoop.
As impressive as the Panthers have been on defense this season, in some areas they have been equally impressive on offense. They are second in the conference in overall field goal percentage at 47.7%, partially due to Gray's ability to get shots within five feet of the hoop. However, they also lead the league in three-point field goal percentage (an incredible 46.3%). They are making slightly over six treys per game in league competition as Fields (8 of 19 for 42.1%), Graves (7 of 12 for 58.3%), and Ramon (10 of 18 for 55.6%) are all threats from behind the arc. Add Benjamin, who is three of six on treys in the conference, and those four guards are a combined 28 of 55 (50.9%) from three-point territory. In other words, if Marquette tries to pack it in and double team Gray, the senior center is a good enough passer to find open teammates on the perimeter who are making roughly 50% of their long-distance shots.
The Panthers also take care of the ball. They lead the conference in assists per game at 17.2 apg, and are second in turnovers at only 11.0 per game. Combined they have by far the best assist/turnover ratio – 1.6/1.0 – in the conference. Cook has 19 assists and only four turnovers in five conference games (3.8/1.0). Fields has 25 assists and only 11 turnovers (2.7/1.0), and Ramon has 10 assists and six turnovers (1.7/1.0). Even Gray has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, which is rare for a center.
It will be interesting to see how both coaches approach individual match ups. When they are in the game together, James and Fields will probably go head to head. Fields is quick and strong, and he takes pride in his defensive ability. This will not be an easy match up for James.
If MU has both Cubillan and James in at the same time Pitt has Fields and Ramon on the floor, there will be two extremely tough one-on-one battles. Marquette can not allow Ramon to set up and get a good look, either on an inside-out pass or off quick ball reversal. Similarly, the Panthers can not allow Cubillan time to measure his shot.
It will also be fascinating to see if McNeal and Cook face off against each other with Matthews and Graves going head to head, or if either coach reverses those assignments. Cook is the more dangerous scorer and likes to drive, so McNeal might be the logical choice to guard him, but Matthews is taller and could take Cook out of his comfort zone when trying to finish. Also, Graves is not much of a threat to drive as he usually stays on the perimeter. Dixon likes to run him off multiple off-ball screens. Putting McNeal on Graves might help keep McNeal out of foul trouble, something that has been an issue the past couple of games.
Up front, there are some intriguing possibilities as well. If Fitzgerald is at the 4 with Barro (or anyone else) at the 5, Kendall will defend the 4 and Gray the 5 because Gray will not be comfortable on the perimeter where Fitzgerald likes to hang out. However, when Fitz is on the bench, Kendall (or Young if he's in at the 4) might match up with Barro while Gray or Biggs defends Burke, Hayward, or Lott. MU has been running the high pick at the top of the arc with Barro stepping out to pick for James, Matthews, and McNeal. Gray is not quick enough to switch and prevent dribble penetration. Nor is he quick enough to recover should Barro roll to the basket. Kendall, however, can do both extremely well.
For MU, Barro has to stay out of foul trouble as Burke's not tall enough and Kinsella's not strong enough to keep Gray away from the hoop. MU's best bet is to deny the entry pass from the perimeter, if it can, and take its chances on Gray not getting too many offensive boards and put-backs.
There are three keys to the game. One is rebounding. Marquette must keep Pittsburgh off the offensive glass to have any chance of winning. That means the guards must also crash the boards. On the other end of the court, Coach Tom Crean's warriors must be exactly that; they have to give MU some second-chance opportunities.
The second key is, obviously, three-point shooting. Marquette can not allow the Panthers' shooters to get open looks and knock down anywhere close to 40% of their trey attempts, let alone nearly 50%. If Ramon, Fields, and Graves have time to set, it will be a long day for MU, and the result could be ugly.
However, MU also must knock down at least a third of its three-pointers. Any four-for-21 or 3-for-16 performance will spell doom for Marquette as Pitt simply does not turn the ball over enough to give up a slew of transition baskets.
Finally, as difficult as it is to propose, the refs could have an enormous impact on the game, not that they would be consciously favoring one team over the other. However, if the zebras call a tight game with numerous fouls, Marquette is at a distinct disadvantage. First of all, Pitt is definitely deeper than MU as Dixon is comfortable with a nine-man rotation. There is not a lot of drop-off when he goes to the bench. More importantly, his bench is deep both in the backcourt and the frontcourt. MU would be hurt by foul trouble to starters more than Pitt would. Marquette fans saw what can happen when Barro spends considerable time on the bench due to fouls. And Gray can definitely draw fouls.
But a closely-called, foul-prone game also takes the flow of the game away. Marquette would prefer as few stoppages as possible. Every trip to the free throw line slows down the game and takes away possibilities to run the court and get points in transition.
A fast-paced game also works against Gray and favors Barro since Barro runs the floor well while Gray prefers to set up in a half-court game on both ends of the court. Numerous fouls gives the Pitt center opportunities to rest without leaving the game.
Marquette has not faced a team this season that presents the inside/outside offensive game Pitt possesses. The Panthers definitely present numerous challenges on both offense and defense. If both teams bring their "A game," Pitt should win, especially on its home court. If MU brings anything short of an "A-minus game," it will likely return to Milwaukee with a 3-3 conference record.
However, Pitt is not invincible. UW kept Gray from getting the ball (five of 10 from the field), and when he did get it, he was double-teamed more often than not. On that day, the Panthers were not hitting from the outside – six of 18 (33.3%). Plus, they were only 19 of 30 (63.3%) from the foul line. The chances of a repeat performance by Pitt on Sunday are slim, but at least the game at the Kohl Center show that Pitt can be beaten.
**Eric Silver, aka "Silver Warrior" is a regular contributor on the MarquetteHoops.com message boards and is also a contributing writer for CHN, College Hoops Network.