Saturday's loss to St. John's was just the third of the season for Pitt. It's rare for Pitt to lose, not just in this season, but overall in the last decade. While St. John's deserves all the credit in the world for holding off Pitt in a game that saw several different lead changes, some of the things Pitt has done in recent games may have been opened up.
After starting off the first seven games of Big East play scoring at least 70 points a game, Pitt has reached 70 points just twice (vs. Cincinnati, vs. USF). This seven-game stretch started with a loss at home to Notre Dame, where the Irish slowed down the tempo, limiting Pitt to the number of shots. It may just be coincidence, but since that loss to Notre Dame, the number of shots over this latest seven-game stretch, differs from the first half of the Big East season. Pitt only had 18 field goals that night. Worse yet, they had 45 field goals overall, shooting 40 percent.
In the first seven Big East games, Pitt shot a collective 189-for-385 (49.1%). In the last seven games, Pitt has shot 146-of-342 (42.6%). Yeah, the shooting percentage is less than the first seven games, but the amount of shots is dramatically different. Pitt has taken a total of 41 less shots over the course of seven games—almost the total of one game. Jamie Dixon always talks about shot selection, and he has a proven system of getting his players to execute and take the right shots. It might look like his team is playing it more conservatively over the last seven games, and there might be some thought that by taking fewer shots, you cut down the risk of missing shots. Pitt's numbers prove the opposite, and the players have bought into it. They believe they need to take more shots to get back to their ways of lighting up the scoreboard as they did in the first part of the Big East season.
"We just haven't been hitting shots," guard Travon Woodall said. "We've played a lot of games, and I think guys just haven't been hitting shots. Maybe we'll get back to what we were doing before, but right now we haven't been hitting shots. We just have to get back to that."
Another problem—one that seems it's been overcome at other times this season—is the balance in scoring. Ashton Gibbs returned after sitting out three games with an MCL injury, leading Pitt with 26 points on Saturday. It was certainly welcome to see Gibbs back with such authority, but the next closest scorer in the Pitt lineup was Gary McGhee with seven points. Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown were held without a field goal in the first half. Wanamaker shot just 2-of-7 from the field, Brown just 1-of-5 for the game. It's not the first time the Pitt team has seen such a trend, yet in some other games, they were able to overcome somebody having an off-night.
- Brown shot just 2-of-8 from the field in the Big East opener against UConn, as Gibbs finished with 21 points, followed by Wanamaker with 14.
- When Gibbs was held to nine points in the very next game, it was Brown stepping up by going 7-of-8 for to lead Pitt with 19 points in a win over Providence.
- Gibbs, Wanamaker and Brown combine to go 9-for-27 (33.3%), yet Pitt still wins by 21 over Seton Hall.
Those are just a few examples of one player having an off-night, and the rest of the supporting crew stepping up in someone else's absence. No player has gone through more than a two-game slump. Take that Seton Hall performance for example, when the big three combined for a 14-of-31 (45.2%) performance two nights later in a win over Syracuse. The key, as Brown says, ties in with what Woodall is saying, but also adds another key aspect—everybody needs to get more shots, while also keeping the team's scoring balanced.
"Oh yeah, without a doubt," Brown said. "We definitely have to have more balanced scoring; more people have to be stepping up. I think me, and Brad (Wanamaker) and Gary (McGhee) feel like we could have stepped up big (against St. John's), made those open shots or easy layups, made the free throws. Certain little things provide a scoring punch that we needed. We definitely didn't do it Saturday against St. John's."
Rebounding is an area that Pitt has had great success with this year—Pitt leads the conference in overall rebounding margin (+10.7 per game) and in Big East games (+7.4 per game). Pitt tied St. John's on Saturday, with 31 rebounds apiece.
To show how much Jamie Dixon prides his team on rebounding, and getting an edge on that glass, rebounding has been his biggest concern in the days since Saturday's loss—mainly because he expects his teams to take that much pride in that one area.
"Bottom line, it was the rebounding," Dixon said, referring to Saturday's loss. "We got dominated on the glass, we turned it over."
One other area that Pitt struggled with on Saturday, was at the free throw line. This is a team that has the Big East's top free throw shooter in Gibbs (31-of-32, 96.9% in conference games). Free throw shooting has been a bit of an Achilles Heel for Dixon's teams, but it's been somewhat better than it has been in recent years.
Take that win at Rutgers for example. While Pitt shot a season-low 35.6 % from the field in that game, also on a season-low 16 shots from the field, it was the free throw area the Panthers relied on to get the win. Outside of a 16-of-19 (84%) performance against Penn in November, Pitt converted 28-of-35 chances at the line (80%) at Rutgers to get the win for its second-best performance of the season. It wasn't a pretty win, and it was a close game. In that close game, Pitt found a way to make foul shots.
In Saturday's close game, they did not, converting just 10-of-18 (55.6%) chances. For the season, Pitt has had a worse percentage in just four games, including just one Big East game (7-of-13, 53.8% vs. Seton Hall). Woodall alluded to free throws earlier, but Brown agreed with him.
"We really missed our opportunities on the free throw line, easy layups and open shots," Brown said. "Some defensive possessions that we could have made better plays, and offensive rebounds, I think it really played into why we lost that game."
So is it all cause for concern? Is there a need to hit the panic button? Probably not, just because of how Pitt has responded after losses under Jamie Dixon. By looking at the number of shots taken, the fact Pitt was even in rebounding, or the fact they had their second-worst free throw shooting performance in Big East play, had Pitt made just one more play in any of these areas; even one more free throw for as pitiful a performance as it was from the free throw line—for as substandard a performance as it was by their mark, Pitt would have won Saturday. The added pressure the players and coaches are placing upon themselves to improve in these areas after just one loss, is one mark of why this program has been successful as it has in recent years.