If you saw Pitt dismantle Georgetown 70-54 on Saturday on the Hoyas' home floor, you may wonder if the title question is necessary. Whether it was DeJuan Blair feasting on the offensive glass on his way to a majestic 20-17 double-double, or the Panthers as a team moving the ball around like a pinball before scoring yet another basket, Jamie Dixon's group clearly looked every inch the best team in the nation at the Verizon Center.
Of course, the Hoyas looked pretty good themselves last week up in Hartford, beating Connecticut 74-63. Not to mention Pitt didn't look nearly as impressive beating Rutgers by just six points last Wednesday night. (What is it with Pitt and Rutgers? Last year the Scarlet Knights won by 13 at Pitt.) Yes, Blair was in foul trouble for virtually the whole game against the Knights and the Pitt team we saw in Piscataway is not the team we're likely to see the rest of the way. My point is simply that we should guard against getting too carried away, positively or negatively, by the last game we saw. There will be another one soon enough.
Still, Pitt fans can at least be forgiven for getting carried away about this offense right now. In fact, I trust that one salutary effect of Saturday's nationally televised beat-down was that it finally laid to rest the myth that the Panthers, invariably praised as "physical" and "rugged," are somehow too muscular to be truly elite on offense.
Nothing could be further from the truth. If you need more evidence than Pitt scoring 70 points in 60 possessions on the road against one of the nation's best defenses, allow me to refer you to last year, when the Panthers scored 1.09 points per possession in Big East play. This was an excellent offense last year. It is again this year. It's an offense built on three big names: Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields. Blair arrived as a highly touted recruit--a little overweight, maybe, but everyone knew he'd be special. He is. I've said this before but it bears repeating: Blair records steals at a rate usually maintained only by players 75 to 100 pounds his junior. He did it again on the second play of the game against Georgetown on Saturday.
Young's has been a more interesting trajectory. As recently as two years ago, back when Pitt was led by Aaron Gray, there was little to indicate that Young would someday be Dixon's featured scorer, much less the toast of the Big East. Yet here he is. To watch Young take on more of the load on offense over the past two seasons while simultaneously becoming much more efficient has been to bear witness to the flouting of a canonical basketball tendency: the more possessions you use, the less efficient you become. Except it didn't work out that way this time. Young has developed into a potent force on offense, most particularly inside the arc, where this year he's making 59 percent of his twos.
Then there's Fields, whose development has been, if anything, even more unusual, as he's accepted a smaller share of the shots in order to become an outstanding pass-first point guard. While the Panthers aren't exactly fast-paced (averaging about 66 possessions per 40 minutes), Fields has the ability to hit the accelerator when appropriate and, most crucially, to gather assists in bunches without giving the ball away.
With all this talent and all these skills, the game plan for any Pitt opponent is two-fold: force the Panthers to shoot threes and keep Blair (and his teammates) off the offensive glass. The dilemma posed by Pitt, of course, is that the best way to accomplish the former objective, a zone, inhibits accomplishing the second goal.
Or does it? Consider Syracuse last year. The Orangemen have long been synonymous with the term "zone defense." Yet somehow way back in 2008 Jim Boeheim's team managed to combine zone D with excellent defensive rebounding. Future Pitt opponents, take heart! True, it didn't work out so well for Georgetown but maybe you can have your zone and your boards too. The 'Cuse did it last year with strength in numbers: Donte Greene, Arinze Onuaku and Paul Harris, in particular. Other Big East teams might try to do the same, given the Panthers' iffy perimeter shooting. So far this season Pitt has made exactly one in every three of its attempts from beyond the arc.
Nor is outside shooting the only concern about this team, assuming you feel you simply must see this glass as half-empty. Here's a table I used in the book to explain my wait-and-see attitude toward Pitt's D, an attitude based on a three-season trend:
Pitt interior D, 2006-2008
Conference games only
Def. reb. pct.: defensive rebound percentage
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
2006 2007 2008
Opp. 2FG pct. 46.6 48.7 50.3
Def. reb. pct. 69.6 68.8 65.9
Opp. PPP 1.00 0.97 1.05
Plainly stated, Pitt is short. They're athletic as all get out and freakishly proficient on the offensive glass, no doubt. Nevertheless, they're short. So I was very surprised that John Thompson III and/or his team didn't give Greg Monroe more post touches. If Monroe can score on pure one-on-one post moves against Hasheem Thabeet, I thought to myself Saturday, he can surely do it against someone eight inches shorter than Thabeet (i.e., Blair). Finally in the second half, Monroe got the ball on the low block--and Blair promptly blocked the freshman's shot. (Shows what I know.) The next time he had the rock in the paint, Monroe scored, but by this point the game was getting out of hand for the Hoyas. I doubt every Big East opponent will wait as long as the Hoyas did to challenge, and try to draw fouls on, Blair.
Is Pitt the best team in the country? A better question might be: who are the best teams? Carolina may have lost at home to Boston College but the Tar Heels will rise again. (After all, last year the Final Four-bound Heels lost at home to a team, Maryland, that didn't even make the NCAA tournament.) As for Pitt, well, clearly they've already risen. Until further notice the best teams in the country include, at a minimum, UNC and the Panthers, warts and all.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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