Pitt has gotten off to an impressive 10-0 start, and will face a 6-0 Tennessee team this Saturday, as part of the DirecTV SEC/Big East Challenge at the new Consol Energy Center.
This is a matchup of two ranked teams, two teams that have been ranked No. 1 in recent years, two coaches in Jamie Dixon and Bruce Pearl that are household names, a meeting for bragging rights between two of the strongest basketball conferences. There really are no shortage of storylines, as the No. 3 Panthers take on the No. 11 Volunteers on Saturday afternoon.
For Pitt to win, this game will come down to four things:
Pitt is ranked first in the country in rebounding margin, averaging 16.7 more rebounds than its opponents through ten games this season. The Panthers have a solid rotation everywhere, but with the senior experience of Gary McGhee, the gradual development of Dante Taylor--especially over the last four games, the raw ability of Talib Zanna and the scrappy play by Nasir Robinson, all four players bring a different dimension to the rebounding game. Most importantly, they flat out bring the right attitude.
"You get good rebounders; we've recruited good rebounders," Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. "They play hard. It's something we've envisioned and worked for, and our guys are taking a lot of pride in it right now."
Tennessee has outrebounded all six opponents this season, and has a +9 rebounding margin.
DEFENDING THE PERIMETER
In its last three games, Pitt has gone up against teams' known for their three-point shooting. They held Duquesne to 8-of-25 (32.0%), Rider to 7-of-21 (33.3%) and Delaware State to 6-of-18 (33.3%). There's no coincidence about all three teams--who were hovering around the 40-percent mark from three-point range entering their respective game with Pitt--as to how they had identical three-point shooting percentages. According to the Pitt players, it's a simple adjustment they know they have to bring, when facing a strong three-point shooting team.
"Coach always emphasizes keeping high hands on shooters, and that's what he said," J.J. Moore said, after Wednesday night's win over Delaware State. "Don't let anybody shoot over you. (Dixon) always told me to focus on my defense, and in practice, I've been focusing on my defense and playing hard; just trying to earn trust in (Dixon) and hopefully keep getting minutes that I'm getting now."
The Volunteers have a dangerous matchup at the two, in 6-7 guard Scotty Hopson. Hopson and Cameron Tatum (6-6, 192), are Tennessee's most dangerous three-point shooters. Gilbert Brown said defending Hopson will be a challenge, but it's something that the Panthers have seen before from various opponents over the years.
One thing that Gilbert Brown pointed out, is that Pitt has to defend and create transition. The Volunteers are averaging just 0.2 more turnovers than their opponents this season, per game (16.0-15.8). Despite turning the ball over, Tennessee is led by Melvin Goins in the transition game, who averages two steals a game.
"I think that's where they excel at, especially with the shooters on the team they have," Brown said, referring to transition.
Three-point shooting or not, the Volunteers can flat out shoot the ball. In all six games, they have had a better shooting percentage than their opponent, holding all six opponents below 50 percent from the field.
ESTABLISHING THE TEMPO
The thinking is that both teams like to run the half-court offense, but are placing emphasis on running a fast pace game, upping the tempo a little bit. Pitt has placed an emphasis on its guards to play faster. In some games this season, they have. Others, they haven't needed to.
Tennessee has traditionally been a team that likes to run and score a lot of points. Pitt players and coaches have differing opinions on what the Volunteers will come out with. Dixon thinks they are a more half-court team, like Pitt traditionally is.
"It gets talked about a lot, but they're probably more half-court, I'd say," Dixon said. "They take great pride in their executions; their sets. They have a lot of patience offensively. They space the floor well."
Brown, on the other hand, believes Tennessee will still come out and try to run.
"Not really much of a half-court team, but they really do get out in transition," Brown said. "They really want to avoid running any half-court sets, and make as much happen in transition as possible."