Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pitt's run in the Big East Tournament

The Pitt fans who travel to New York City every year during the first week of March have pretty much become able to book their hotel rooms for Saturday night without so much as a second thought. Such is the regularity with which the Panthers have earned their way into the Big East Championship Game, having reached the final six times in the past seven years.

However, they've also taken on some characteristics of a certain other local sports team, almost always following up regular season superiority with postseason disappointments. They've won just one of those six Big East Championships, and I don't need to tell you about their failures in the big dance.

The trend continued this year, with a hard-fought, up-tempo ten-point victory over Marquette in the quarterfinals and a hard-fought traditional Big East bruiser against Louisville on Friday night. The main difference between this year and previous years, though, was that Pitt didn't even put up a fight in the final. It was a disappointing result, given Pitt's efforts, albeit losing efforts, in epic Big East Championship Games like the double-overtime loss to Syracuse in 2002 and the three-point loss to UConn in 2004.

Despite the embarrassing performance in this year's Big East final, the tournament was no doubt a positive experience for the Panthers.

First of all, their path to the Championship Game was a huge boost for Pitt's supporters, assuaging some of the fears that Pitt can't beat good teams. Marquette and Louisville are both certainly good teams, ones that Pitt went 0-3 against during the regular season. In the process of upending two of the only three Big East teams to conquer them this year, the Panthers also exorcised some demons in a pretty nifty passion?

Remember when Marquette sunk their last fifteen consecutive free throws in the final minutes of regulation and overtime, way back in January, en route to a three-point victory over Pitt at the Oakland Zoo? In a thrilling stroke of poetic justice, Pitt made fifteen straight free throws during the second half of their 89-79 win over Marquette in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament.

Remember when Louisville's full-court press harried Pitt into 19 turnovers during a humiliating 13-point loss at the Pete (Pitt's worst home loss since the building opened)? Pitt brushed off everything the Cardinals threw at them despite Aaron Gray playing only 13 minutes thanks to foul trouble, turned the ball over only 4 times, and muscled their way to a second consecutive night of clutch performances from the free throw line.

So far, so good.

Then, of course, there's the Championship Game itself, in which Pitt stumbled to a 23-point loss, scoring fewer points than any team in any previous Big East Championship Game. For a lot of other teams, this could be a devastating result. But for a team like Pitt, where success should only be measured in terms of NCAA tourney accomplishments these days, it's not as big of an issue as a lot of people are making it out to be.

I don't mean to take credit away from Georgetown, because the Hoyas are a great team. But let's be honest here; Pitt purely and simply shot itself in the foot during that game. The Hoyas defense was good, but not so good that it was the sole reason Pitt shot a miserable 26.2% from the floor. A lot of the misses were very open looks, and Gray, the biggest culprit, was 1-for-13. Most of his misses were virtually gimmes. Gray was hardly taking ridiculous shots that he's not accustomed to taking. He was just missing the easiest buckets for some strange reason.

I was a fan of the big guy's five o'clock shadow, but certainly not his
aggravatingly bad play.

This brings me to another point. The Panthers can prepare for playing an entire game without Gray. They can even do a decent job of improvising if Gray gets injured mid-game/forced to the bench because of foul trouble for an extended period of time (see: Pitt 65, Louisville 59). But what Pitt can't do is plan for a situation where Gray is in the game, but just playing so badly he's hurting the team far more than he's helping it. Such instances are very, very rare, but we saw one on Saturday night.

As long as Gray is on the floor, the tendency is to put an exorbitant amount of weight on him. And that makes sense, because Gray is still the team's most productive player at both ends of the floor, and still averages close to a double-double. But if he plays as bad as he does last night, Pitt is fucked. The Panthers have the talent to overcome a complete lack of Gray, but not Gray impaling his own team.

To that end, I'm willing to overlook Saturday night's blemish as just an off night all around (and it clearly wasn't just Gray). The Panthers still held Georgetown to 65 points, and if you tell me that Pitt holds any opponent to 65 points I'd be convinced that Pitt would be at the very least running with them. And the math supports me:

Pitt on the season (including Saturday night's debacle) shoots 51.1% on two-point attempts and 37.5% on three-point attempts. Using those numbers with Pitt's 2-point and 3-point attempts on Saturday night (44 and 17, respectively), plus the amount of free throws made (which was almost exactly the same percentage as their season total, so that doesn't even need to be altered).

Shooting to their season averages on Saturday, Pitt would have scored 69 points. That's 4 more than Georgetown actually scored, coincidentally shooting approximately (just slightly higher) their season average.

Obviously there are variables, like Georgetown could have been a little more aggressive had the game been closer, etc. But in general it's pretty clear that Pitt's absolutely abysmal night shooting was the only reason Pitt wasn't in that game at the very least. Defensively they did well enough, and they only committed nine turnovers. Not a great number, but not the kind of number you can point to as a reason Pitt got blown out, especially when Georgetown turned the ball over the same amount of times.

Of course, doing all this analysis is pretty much meaningless, except it makes me feel better and makes me pretty confident that Saturday night was nothing more than a fluke. Pitt was simply stone cold. It happens sometimes.

In the end, I'll take this tournament showing. Pitt came up big against two top-25 teams that had tormented them during the regular season, and then hopefully got their bedshitting performance out of the way before the big dance. Sure, it would have been nice had Pitt taken home the Big East title, but I would much, much rather see an appearance in the Elite 8 for once.

Although that looks like it's going to be a hell of an ordeal as it is, but I'll save bracket talk for another post.

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