Tuesday, January 30, 2007

THE WHEEL OF DOOM does it again

Merrily it rolls along, with no one ever quite sure where it's going to stop or who it will land on next.

I'm talking, of course, about Jamie Dixon's WHEEL OF DOOM, the nine-headed monster that makes its lair deep within the confines of the Petersen Events Center on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.

Jamie Dixon is quite proud of his behemoth, often using phrases like "I have nine starters" to describe the basketball team under his charge.

Okay, so technically, he only has five starters, as he's run the same five players onto the court for the opening tip-off in all 23 of Pitt's games so far this season. But with his invention, THE WHEEL, Dixon does indeed have the luxury of nine players who, at any moment, are able to contribute. THE WHEEL picks somebody different every night. It's how THE WHEEL works.

Last night, for instance, it was Antonio Graves' night of destiny, with the senior guard providing the key spark as Pitt rallied from a 9-point, second-half deficit at the Wachovia Center, avoiding a fate that had already befallen other top-25 teams in Texas and Notre Dame at the same venue against the same team, a scrappy Villanova Wildcats outfit. Graves scored 13 points, hooked up with teammates for 7 assists, and crafted 4 steals, almost all of the above coming in the last ten minutes of the game as Pitt surged ahead, then clamped down on a 65-59 victory.

It was a couple of the usual suspects, too. Aaron Gray wound up with another (yawn) double-double. Levance Fields, who's become something of a personal favorite of mine, can either score or pave the way for his teammates to score, with an assist/turnover ratio of 2.7. Last night, it was the former, as Levance dropped 20 on the Wildcats, not the least of which was draining an emphatic three-pointer with under a minute left to hand the Panthers an insurmountable 60-55 lead.

It was also Keith Benjamin, whose media reference as "the 9th man" is often what drives Dixon into his "I have nine starters" rhetoric. Benjamin's contribution in the box score is pretty modest. 11 minutes, 9 points. What the box score doesn't tell you, however, is that Benjamin's scoring all came on a 3-of-5 performance from beyond the arc, each trey seemingly bigger than the previous one.

THE WHEEL doesn't stop there. The last two times out, it was Sam Young reaching double digits in scoring in victories against Cincinnati and St. John's. Against Georgetown, a win that's looking more and more important as the Big East schedule progresses, it was East Carolina transfer Mike Cook. On other nights, it's been Levon Kendall's consummate professionalism and all-arond player, or Ronald Ramon's hot touch from three-point range.

That's the beauty of THE WHEEL. No one ever knows where the magic is going to come from on any given night. But it almost always comes from somewhere. And THE WHEEL is why I am finding myself more excited about this particular Pitt team than any in the last six years, a span in which the Panthers have done some pretty remarkable things. For example, fifteen teams have made the last five consecutive NCAA tournaments. Of those, Pitt is the only one without a player currently employed by an NBA team.

Of course, in order to temper my excitement so I don't find the nearest window ledge when the team inevitably fails to make it past the Sweet 16 yet again, I'll readily admit that the Panthers are far from perfect. Some of the issues that could potentially be problematic come March:
  • Defense. Yes, one of the trademarks of the Howland/Dixon Pitt basketball program has too often found itself absent this season. It's still there, sure, but it looks a little bit lackluster at times. Part of that has to do with the offense-for-defense sacrifice Dixon makes by giving Mike Cook 25 minutes a game, but for the most part, Pitt has clamped down when it's had to. I've seen flashes of that old-school Howlandball. It just needs to show up a little more consistently.
  • First halves. Pitt seems to have trouble really blowing games open in the first half, often against good-but-not-great competition. Too often, they play like they can win the game at any time. It didn't hurt them against UConn going into the half with only a one-point lead, and it almost burned them last night against Nova, playing one of the most lethargic first halves I've ever seen, and going into the break down five. It did bite them in the ass against Marquette, their only Big East loss thus far.
  • Still can't beat a ranked opponent. I'm not as concerned with this as some people are, considering two of the losses were in overtime, one of which was virtually a road game (I'm still trying to get around the fact that a game being played in Oklahoma City against Oklahoma State is considered "neutral" by RPI) that went down to double OT. The other was the aforementioned Marquette affair that saw Pitt rally furiously from 11 points down in the final seven minutes to tie the game thanks to Keith Benjamin's Rebound Heard Round The World, only to lose in overtime with three starters fouled out and the Golden Eagles sinking their last 15 consecutive free throws. You can't make that stuff up. The Wisconsin game was pretty much a nightmare, but the Badgers have pretty much proven by now that they're on another plane entirely.

We'll know in the next couple of months just how much mileage Jamie Dixon is able to coax out of THE WHEEL, but in the mean time I'll let myself get excited and believe THE WHEEL has just enough tread on it to carry these Pitt Panthers over that irritating Sweet 16 hump.

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