GETTING INSIDE Based on the preseason polls, the Panthers were a long shot to make the NCAA Tournament. Instead, it earned a No. 3 seed in the West Region and a first round game against Oakland, Mich.
That was sweet news for Pittsburgh Sunday, especially since it came after a disappointingly-short stay in the Big East tournament. The Panthers had a double-bye into the quarterfinals as the No. 3 seed, but their trip to New York lasted just one night as it fell 50-45 to Notre Dame.
Still, if Pitt is going to keep this surprising season a success, it will have to figure out what the Fighting Irish did to shut down the Panthers offense. The 45 points was a season-low for Pitt, and only part of that can be explained by the team missing makeable shots.
What the Fighting Irish did particularly well was deny leading scorer Ashton Gibbs the basketball. The sophomore was limited to four points -- on just four shots. At the same time, it did a nice job stopping the Panthers inside, holding Gary McGhee scoreless and holding the team to 13 points from the frontcourt.
That's the big difference between the Panthers team that went to the Elite Eight and came agonizingly close to the Final Four a year ago and the current edition. The 2008-09 squad had guys like Sam Young and DeJuan Blair inside, plus Levance Fields on the perimeter, making them very hard to stifle.
Of course, it was the fact that everyone focused on the players who were gone that so little was expected from the team this season in the first place. The Panthers won't be a trendy pick to match last year's Elite Eight run, but with a defense that ranked No. 1 in the Big East in points allowed and a bench that's gotten better as the season has gone on, this team could continue to prove the doubters wrong.
--Pitt finished the season as the Big East's top defensive team, holding opponents to 61.4 points per game. It has held 18 of its 32 opponents to 60 points or less.
--This Panther squad has already accomplished more than what was expected in October. Pitt was picked to finish ninth place in the conference in the preseason poll, but has now extended its streak of 20-win seasons and NCAA Tournament appearances to nine seasons.
COACH: Jamie Dixon, seven years at Pittsburgh, seven years in NCAA Tournament
KEYS TO VICTORY: Pittsburgh is going to have to play well on the inside, particularly defensively, if it hopes to advance in the NCAA Tournament. The inside players struggled against Notre Dame in the Big East tournament, and Gary McGhee, Nasir Robinson, Gilbert Brown and Dante Taylor will have to hold their own in the paint, to give the Panther guards like Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker room to move on the perimeter.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The most important thing is we always want to go deep into the NCAA Tournament. That's our goal from the beginning of the season, and there's still so much more that we can accomplish." -- Pitt forward Gilbert Brown told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, following his team's loss to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING REPORT: There is no Panther more excited to start playing non-Big East teams again than Ashton Gibbs. The Pitt guard started the season on fire, but had a much harder time of it once the league adjusted and started focusing more on denying him a good look at the basket. When he's shooting the ball well, the Panthers are tough to beat, so denying him those opportunities is essential to any team that hopes to beat Pitt.
Notre Dame 50, Pittsburgh 45 (Big East quarterfinals)
vs. Oakland, Friday, NCAA Tournament, West Regional first round at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisc.
--G Ashton Gibbs was honored by the Big East by being named the conference's Most Improved Player. He increased his scoring average by nearly 12 points per game between his freshman and sophomore seasons. This award is old hat for the Panthers, however, as the team has won it six times in the last 11 years.
--C Gary McGhee hasn't replaced the production of the departed DeJuan Blair, but he has emerged as a presence in the paint in his junior season. He leads the team by averaging seven rebounds per game, and is averaging 7.2 points per night as well.
--F Dante Taylor was expected to step right into the starting lineup, but the much-heralded freshman found the transition to the college game more difficult than expected. However, he has emerged as a more effective player over the past month, since ending a four-game scoreless streak in early February.
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