Sunday, February 2, 2014
game preview: Pittsburgh
Date/Time: Sunday, February 2; 12:30
Record against the Panthers: 7-3
Last meeting: UVA 84, Pitt 80; 12/3/90, Richmond, VA
Last game: UVA 68, ND 53 (1/28); Duke 80, Pitt 65 (1/27)
UVA: 63.0 (#335)
Pitt: 65.2 (#266)
UVA: 109.5 (#77)
Pitt: 117.9 (#11)
UVA: 88.2 (#2)
ND: 94.1 (#18)
UVA: .9231 (#13)
ND: .9304 (#8)
PG: London Perrantes (4.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 3.8 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (11.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.1 apg)
SF: Joe Harris (11.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.2 apg)
PF: Akil Mitchell (6.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.3 apg)
C: Mike Tobey (7.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 0.4 apg)
PG: James Robinson (8.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 4.2 apg)
SG: Cameron Wright (10.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.9 apg)
SF: Lamar Patterson (17.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.5 apg)
PF: Michael Young (5.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 0.9 apg)
PF: Talib Zanna (13.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 0.5 apg)
Cutting right to the chase, this game is about one thing and one thing only: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. From the pollsters and, more importantly, the tourney committee. Here's the thing: the ACC has shaken out into tiers, as it tends to do, and there's a clear top four of Cuse, Pitt, Duke, and UVA. Duke beat Pitt and us, Cuse beat Duke and Pitt - and now there's Pitt and UVA going at it. We already aren't ranked at all, not even close in the ARV category, because we haven't really beaten anyone. We've just beaten the pulp out of most of our ACC competition, and knocked off SMU, I guess. FSU, maybe they count, maybe UNC, but still.
After Pitt, the schedule is a month worth of scrubs, ranging from the moderately dangerous (Clemson, Maryland) to the utter crap (BC, VT, Miami.) The next crack we have at a major tourney-bound team is in the next-to-last game of the year when Syracuse comes to town. It'll be nice to pile up wins, but here's a fact: unless we beat one of these other three teams, nobody will put us in a tier with them. There'll be a top three instead of a top four and we'll probably find ourselves a six seed at best. This is a great problem to have, by the way, but it's still a problem. So what's at stake in this game is no less than a top-three placement in the ACC. Winner gets it. Loser is fourth. Regardless of what the standings say, perception is reality, so that's how it'll be. So - this one's big.
-- UVA on offense
There isn't much of a weakness anywhere in Pitt's defense. They're a more athletic team than UVA has faced most of the way here in the ACC. As part of Lamar Patterson's do-absolutely-everything repertoire, he's a good defender who can grab steals, and shooting guard Cameron Wright gets even more. Very few teams can match UVA in defensive possession length, but Pitt come close.
They also rebound quite well, led in this regard by Talib Zanna, easily the best rebounder on the team. Backup power forward Derrick Randall scoops three boards a game in just ten minutes of time. As UVA has also rebounded very well on both ends of the court, the battle on the glass should be one of the best parts of the game.
Mike Tobey may have a slight advantage, though, as he'll be the tallest player on the court by two inches. Pitt doesn't have anyone over 6'9", a small strike against them. It's made them a middling shot-blocking team at best, which is probably the one chink in their armor. Remember I said Tobey would have a good game against Notre Dame because they don't block shots? And then remember how he did have a good game? Pitt's not any better at the shot-block - a little worse, actually. The difference is that Tobey will be going up against more athletic players as well as a team that might help on defense once a season. If Tobey scores another 14 points, though, I'll have no choice but to conclude he'll likely have a solid game any time he doesn't have to worry about his shot getting swatted.
Easier said than done, but UVA may be able to gain an advantage if they can put Pitt's guards in foul trouble. They don't foul much, which is good because there aren't many of them. Josh Newkirk is the only one they have off the bench, and he's nothing special; more often, Pitt waits until the matchups allow them to pull a guard and then they put a forward in - often backup wing Chris Jones - and have Lamar Patterson guard the two.
At least there's this: UVA's free throw shooting has been slightly better in ACC play, nudging the Hoos into the top 300 in FT%. Great news, I suppose. To win this game, they'll need to continue getting good, balanced scoring and break down the Pitt defense with good passing and some timely threes. In other words, play good offense. Great advice. It's the only way to get around a skilled, athletic defense like Pitt.
-- UVA on defense
You have to start any discussion of Pitt's offense with Lamar Patterson. It's constitutionally required. There's nothing he doesn't do, really. ESPN recently pointed out that he's the only player in the country shooting .500 on twos, .400 on threes, and averaging over four assists a game. He spreads his shots evenly around the court, and you can't foul him because he shoots 80% from the line. Patterson is almost assured a spot on the ACC first team, or else the voters are numbnuts.** UVA will need an athletic player guarding him - Justin Anderson seems a likely bet even though he's not a starter, and perhaps Malcolm Brogdon instead of Joe Harris. KenPom's player ratings place Patterson 4th in the entire country, with only Nick Johnson, Jabari Parker, and Doug McDermott ahead.
So that's a matchup nightmare through and through. Pitt also gets over 60% shooting on twos from Talib Zanna, but Zanna's effectiveness drops exponentially if you force him away from the rim. Whoever guards him, Akil Mitchell probably, has got to body up and get him as far from the net as possible, more so than usual when guarding a post player. It'll keep him off the offensive boards and kill his scoring effectiveness if Mitchell can do this.
Having lost sixth man Durand Johnson to a knee injury about three days after I wrote the Pitt preview, the Panthers only get reliable scoring from two other players. One is Cameron Wright, who's most effective in the midrange game but a crap three-point shooter, and the other is PG James Robinson, a pass-first point guard who also prefers the midrange jumper but is best when trying to get to the rim.
Beyond that, Pitt gets only marginal contributions from the five other rotation players. Backup PG Josh Newkirk, for example - the way to defend him is to overplay him hard, and if he drives around, hack him. He's shooting 1-for-10 from the line. Pitt is otherwise a generally excellent free-throw shooting team, so care is warranted, but UVA has little to fear from a Michael Young or a Jamel Artis, as long as UVA is rebounding.
This may be a favorable matchup for the pack-line. UVA will probably use the low-post double team on Zanna as much as humanly possible, fearing very little of Zanna's passing or the abilities of the rest of the frontcourt. The pack-line should hopefully discourage Robinson from driving the lane - you'd rather have him shooting jumpers. What to do about Patterson is another question entirely. Hope he has an off day, I guess.
When I'm predicting these games, I usually have half an idea of what I want to go with before I start and develop the rest in my head as I go. I was hoping that the writing would help me out here more than usual. It's done nothing of the sort. Whether you think Pitt or UVA will win this game depends basically on a couple questions, not all of which are analytical. Is UVA good enough at their defensive system to shut down Pitt? Can we finally have nice things or are we destined, even when having a good season, to be not quite good enough? Can UVA hit just enough threes to stay within striking distance if not pull ahead? These are two pretty evenly matched teams and I have no idea what the answer is to any of those questions. Pitt has a talent edge, UVA a depth edge. And these days, I hardly know anymore whether it's OK to go on an optimistic streak. The shoe always drops, doesn't it?
Nevertheless, fuck it.
Final score: UVA 64, Pitt 61