While some (not all) diehards in the Pitt fanbase are still dealing with the loss of Ben Howland, we have a game to focus on. It is time to put the obvious story line aside and think about how our Bruins match up against the original Ben Ball warriors. If you want to get an idea how these two teams mirror each other, just wade through the Pomeroy scouting reports for both Bruins and Panthers. The numbers are identical. However, there are some differences.
UCLA has more experiences among its players in terms of advancing deeper into the tourney. None of the Pitt players have experienced going beyond the round of Steve-16. However, what Pitt does have, which UCLA doesn’t, is senior leadership. Pitt starting line up features 3 savvy and experienced seniors. Here are the starters per Sportsline:
Usual Starters -- F Levon Kendall, F Mike Cook, C Aaron Gray, G Levance Fields, G Antonio Graves. Key Subs -- G Ronald Ramon; F Sam Young
Strengths: When Pitt gets into a rhythm, its offense is fun to watch. It has a dominant center and dangerous shooters, a tough combination to stop. It's also a very strong defensive team that isn't going to find itself run out of the gym very often, and can dominate on the boards. It led the Big East in assists.
Weaknesses: Pittsburgh hasn't had a great track record against top competition, so it's unclear how the team will fare if it hits the second weekend of the NCAAs. It's one of those teams that sometimes looks better on paper than it plays on the court. The Panthers make barely two-thirds of their free-throw attempts.
Pitt has the edge up front. Pitt has a better front court led by superstar 7-0, 270 monster Senior center Aaron Gray. I am not sure whether the Bruins have taken on such a complete and polished presence in the middle the entire season. He is a monster down low and at the same time apparently he is a great passer, who is adept in diffusing double teams. So quiet simply Mata and Aboya will have to play their best and more importantly the smartest game of the season.
Gray is not the only big guy up front. Panthers also feature 6-10, 225 Senior Forward, Levan Kendall, who is the team’s second leading rebounder at 5.5 boards per game. He is going to be a challenge for Luc. I think Luc is going to find a way to get his rebounds, however, he is going to have to show more focus and determination when he gets those close looks on offense. As we have mentioned number of times before for few games now, Luc hasn’t been finishing up, in terms of picking up garbage point around the bucket. He can’t afford to miss layups and gimmes like he has been in his last few games.
Besides Gray and Kendall, Bruins will also have to keep an eye on Mike Cook. Most likely Shipp will draw the assignment of matching up against the 6-4, 220 Junior swingman, who is the only other member of team besides Gray, averaging double figures in scoring column (10.6 points a game). Cook doesn’t take a lot of 3 point shots, but he is effective. He has made 45 percent of his long range bombs, connecting on 19 out of his 42 attempts. Shipp is going to have stay focused through the entire game. He cannot afford to have any sort of defensive relapses, making sure this guy doesn’t get any open looks or easy access to the rim.
While the Panthers have edge up front, Bruins will have to use their strength in the back court. As mentioned above Graves is one of the three seasoned seniors who has been leading the Panthers this season. He has had a slow tournament so far, but he really had a great start in the Big East tournament, highlighted by a 23 point scorcher against Pitino’s Cardinals. I imagine it will be AA matching up against the senior guard.
I think one of the keys to this game will be just how much pressure the Bruins can generate via their backcourt. If DC and AA can generate ferocious pressure on the Panther guards, the Bruins will be in business. And as discussed yesterday, I wonder we will see a little more of Westbrook, paired up with either DC and AA or DC and Shipp, to bring the heat on defense.
Oh and speaking of Westbrook, let’s get back on the issue of bench. None of Pitt. players average 30 mins a game (Levance Fields avg. 29.6 mins a game), while the Bruins have 3 players (AA, DC, and Luc) who averages more 30 mins a game, while Shipp is close at 29.9. Coach Howland is a very stubborn coach. So he may just decide to stick with his veterans. However, it may not be a bad idea to squeeze in 3-5 mins for Westbrook, finding a way to give our starters a little breathing time so that they can stay fresh on defense. Just saying.
Now going back to Pitt. on defense my impression of Pitt based on few segments of their games I have seen this year that they usually play man. However, per Howland in today’s Norwood’s story in the LA, Dixon has been mixing in zone every now and then:
"There's a lot of similar stuff, and stuff that's tweaked," Howland said. "There are even some of the same calls. There are not a lot of secrets."
So those are some of my notes for now. I am sure there are many other angles to cover this juicy matchup. I am interested in hearing more of your thoughts. So let it rip.