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The 12 games of Pittmas plus one

Well, here we are. It’s Christmas time again, and the University Of Pittsburgh Men’s Basketball Team has just finished its 13 game non-conference schedule. In honor of the holiday season, let’s take a breather – and look backward and forward – while we all get ready for the Big East games to begin, commencing with a visit from the No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats to the Petersen Events Center on New Year’s Eve.

First of all, congratulation to Jamie Dixon on achieving 250 wins with a victory over Kennesaw State on December 23rd. He hardly looks old enough to have won 100 games, let alone 250. May he keep up his winning ways, and may he remain forever young.

Congratulations also to the team on its record of 12-1, and its No. 24 ranking, the first time Pitt has been ranked since last Christmas.

Now that the kudos are over, it’s time to consider just what the team has accomplished through the baker’s dozen of non-Big East games.

The reality nowadays is that big-time college basketball programs generally play a pretty weak non-conference schedule, and Pitt is certainly no exception. Its 13 non-conference opponents currently own a combined record of 70-89 (44%). If only two teams (12-0 Michigan and 9-2 Lehigh) are removed from that equation, the remaining eleven opponents are currently a combined 49-87, a 36 percent winning percentage. And even though that’s actually higher than Steven Adams’ free throw percentage (see below) it’s still pretty much a parade of tomato cans, if you think about it. Only one of Pitt’s opponents to date is ranked, No. 2 Michigan.

Michigan is certainly an excellent team, no doubt about it. But keep in mind that Michigan has played only one true road game, an eight point win at Bradley University. And Michigan has feasted at home on the likes of Slippery Rock, Cleveland State, Western Michigan, Binghamton, Eastern Michigan, … well … you get the picture. Pitt played Michigan very tough in a five point loss last month at Madison Square Garden. To me, the first two-thirds of that game was by far Pitt’s most impressive effort so far this season. Pitt just ran out of gas toward the end. I really believe if that game is played at the Pete, Pitt wins by five.

That Michigan game was a good performance against a quality opponent, the combination of which has been sorely lacking in the rest of the non-conference schedule, save for a 25 point drubbing of a good Lehigh team on November 13th in Pittsburgh. And there have been times when Pitt has not looked good at all. It seemed to struggle mightily at home against a truly awful Kennesaw State team which is currently 1-11. It took overtime at home to beat Oakland (currently 5-8).

We have come to expect great defense from Jamie Dixon’s troops, and this team is no exception. It is ranked 7th in the NCAA in scoring defense, holding opponents to 52.6 points per game. It is 4th in scoring margin at 24.7 per game.

Individually, there have been some bright spots. Talib Zanna has played consistently well, leading the team in scoring (13.2 ppg), and rebounding (6.3 rpg). He also has nine blocked shots and 10 steals, while shooting 75% from the foul line. Tray Woodall is second in scoring at 11.7 points per game, is averaging 5.85 assists per game, has 14 steals, and is shooting three-pointers at 41.8%, leading the team in all three latter categories. JJ Moore started off the season like a house on fire, and even though he has cooled down, is still scoring 10.3 points per game while grabbing 4.6 rebounds per game. He has blocked seven shots, and is shooting 85.4% from the foul line.

How about the touted freshmen? James Robinson has been rock-solid. He’s scoring 7.2 points per game, getting 2.2 rebounds per game, and is second on the team in assists at 4.46 per game. He has 13 steals, has shot 85.0% from the free throw line, and perhaps most impressively for a freshman point guard, has only 14 turnovers in 13 games. To put that into perspective, keep in mind that Talib Zanna also has 14 turnovers -- and ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Zanna isn’t a point guard.

Steve Adams has been making progress, though he at times can disappear in games, and at other times can be maddeningly inconsistent. He is averaging 7.3 points per game, good for fifth on the team, is second in rebounding at 6.2 per game, and by far leads the team in blocked shots with 25 (Talib Zanna is second with only 9). One glaring negative statistic is his performance at the foul line, where he is shooting a truly woeful 34.6%. He needs to spend some extra practice time at the charity stripe or see a hypnotist or a psychiatrist. Whatever it takes to improve.

All in all, Pitt has thus far played well at times and poorly at times against generally less-than-stellar opposition. Perhaps that is understandable. Rotations are being worked out. Underclassmen are learning. Teams do tend to play up (or in this case down) to the level of their competition. However, the tomato can parade has come to an end, and with such ranked teams as Louisville, Cincinnati, Syracuse, Georgetown, and Notre Dame looming on the upcoming schedule, Pitt has got to elevate its game and consistently play at a higher level. I don’t see a repeat of last year’s Big East debacle, but judging from what I have witnessed to date, Pitt looks more like a lower middle-of-the-packer than anything else.

At high noon on New Year’s Eve, Cincinnati brings its 12-0 record to town. Let the (real) games begin.

And no matter what the New Year brings in terms of success for the University of Pittsburgh Men’s Basketball Team, I wish health and happiness next year for all of you.

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