In some ways, Pitt was lucky to eek out a win over Maryland on Thursday night in the opener of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. Pitt shot just 30 percent from three-point range, and they turned the ball over 15 times. Still, because of a dominant performance on the glass--large in part to the performance of Talib Zanna--the Panthers are playing against the Longhorns in the championship game.
Entering last night's game, Pitt knew it had to focus on shutting down Maryland big man Jordan Williams. Williams entered the contest averaging a double-double in through the first three games, and also had 15 rebounds in consecutive games. Gary McGhee was in charge of defending Williams, while Zanna and Dante Taylor served as distractions. Williams still finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, but was not a factor.
Though it was Zanna who stole the show with his first career double-double, Taylor also had eight points and four rebounds. For the first time this season, Pitt had to rely on its frontcourt to win itself a game.
"I think that was something that's going to be a strength of ours," Dixon said. "Some games we'll have it, other games we've had guys score big for us. I think we have a lot of good players. We know that and we continue to improve. They're young guys, but they're good. They continue to compete and get better in practice."
Dixon was also blessed with the return of Nasir Robinson, who played seven minutes, but still made an impact on defense. With the emergence of Zanna, not only does Dixon have more of a luxury at the four position--where Robinson started last year--but he can also take his team getting Robinson minimal minutes as he works himself back into game shape.
Pitt will need another big game on the boards, against a bigger Texas lineup. Working it inside for the Longhorns is 6-7 forward Jordan Hamilton, who has hit at least 20 points in all three games so far this season. He was a big factor in Thursday night's win over Illinois, as he scored the first eight points of the overtime period.
Hamilton is joined in the frontcourt by 6-8 freshman Tristan Thompson and 6-6 swingman Gary Johnson. Thompson also game up big in Thursday night's win, All three are the top three scorers and rebounders for the Longhorns. Thompson finished with 20 points and seven rebounds on Thursday night.
The unique thing about Texas is that all three big men--Hamilton, Thompson and Johnson--share the rebounding load. Not one of them is the main rebounder, as Williams was for Maryland. It's a group effort, which is sort of how Pitt's inside game was successful last night. Zanna and Taylor combined for 16 of Pitt's 49 rebounds. Interestingly both guards--Ashton Gibbs for Pitt and Dogus Balbay for Texas--had seven rebounds and eight rebounds respectively for their teams on Thursday night. To contend with Texas, Pitt needs similar, perhaps even better production off the glass than they had Thursday.
For Pitt to win, they'll need both their frontcourt and guards to be dominant. Though Pitt still won last night, Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker combined for four assists, and nine turnovers. That kind of performance is uncharacteristic of how Pitt plays under Jamie Dixon. Typically, there's a high assist-to-field goal ratio, as well as assist-to-turnover ratio. Last night, Pitt only had 12 assists on 25 field goals, while turning the ball over 15 times. Entering the game, they averaged over a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, while assisting on 70 percent of their field goals this season.
Even though Pitt's tendencies came out different on Thursday night, factor in other guards like Travon Woodall and Lamar Patterson. Woodall finished with 11 points, including a short-range jumper that took a bounce off the rim, putting Pitt up 42-29 early in the second half. Patterson created some separation with his three-pointer. Gibbs and Wanamaker might not have the type of production they had in the first two games, but that's mostly due to players like Woodall and Patterson becoming bigger figures. Gibbs and Wanamaker were still threats, and still came up with big plays. Even after six turnovers, it was still a big game for Gibbs.