College Hoops Monday Recap: Panthers Handle Connecticut

December 28th, 2010
Despite making the quick climb through the rankings, from not being ranked in anyone's Top 25 to finding themselves in the Top 5, there were still questions about Jim Calhoun's Connecticut squad. Biggest question: how would they handle playing in a hostile environment like the Petersen Events Center? That question obviously didn't stand for the experienced Kemba Walker but the team as a whole received quite the lesson from Big East preseason favorite Pittsburgh. Walker scored his points (31) but needed 27 shot attempts to do so and no other Husky scored more than nine in a 78-63 Panther victory, as Pitt controlled the game defensively for much of the forty minutes. Ashton Gibbs led four Pitt players in double figures with 21 points as Jamie Dixon's squad put forth another performance that showed why "team" trumps "individual".

"I thought they just locked us up defensively," said Coach Calhoun. "We aren't a young team, but they made us make young plays. We thought the bailout would be a fall away three pointer or some tough shots. The only thing we did was rebound."

Pitt limited UConn to 31.7% shooting from the field, and no Husky other than Walker scored a field goal in the second half until there were fewer than three minutes left in the game. One aspect of toughness is the mental toughness to continue running your sets despite tough defense, and far too often the Huskies put up contested shots in the midst of the Panther man-to-man. The remaining Connecticut players made just nine of thirty-three shots, and as a team UConn had just six assists to fifteen turnovers. While Walker can definitely make things happen offensively if this group is to be successful in Big East play they'll need a cooperative effort. A shot here or there from a Shabazz Napier or Jeremy Lamb (combined 5-for-16) is good at the time but over the course of forty minutes can lead to their downfall if the shots aren't quality looks. Contrast that with Pitt, who ran their offense with precision at key junctures in the game (including a backbreaking Gibbs three following a timeout called by Coach Dixon with 3:23 remaining).

"I'm really pleased with how our half court offense is developing and improving," said Coach Dixon. "The way we pass the ball and move in space, we can be very dangerous. I think we're finally starting to realize that a contested three early in the shot clock isn't necessary, because if we stay with it we can get great shots. Honestly though, I'm still not sure we realize how good we can be at this."

The Panthers assisted on 19 of their 25 made baskets on the night, and the whole is more valuable than the sum of the individual parts. In addition to the offensive play Pitt received 22 points and 21 rebounds from the tandem of Gary McGhee and Nasir Robinson, with Robinson also adding four assists. Pittsburgh moved to 8-0 at The Pete against Top 5 opponents and 142-11 all-time in the arena, so don't beat up on Connecticut too much for this loss. But there are things they need to work on offensively, and sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi played nineteen ineffective minutes inside. Those differences rose above the surface on Monday night, exposed by a team that while it may not have a regular season title of its own is the more experienced group. The question for Connecticut is how quickly they can apply the lessons learned as they move forward.

(Quotes courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Athletics)

Other Notable Happenings

1. Butler takes care of Washington State to win the Diamond Head Classic (Saturday night).
Brad Stevens' Bulldogs went on a 15-0 second half run to pull away from Washington State 84-68 in the final of the Diamond Head Classic on Saturday night, with tournament MVP Matt Howard adding 14 points and 11 rebounds to Shelvin Mack's 20. There were two factors that should be taken out of this game if you're interested in the progression of Butler as they re-enter Horizon League play. One would be their defense, which practically shut down any Cougar not named Klay Thompson (10-18 FG, 31 points). The other four starters made just six of twenty-one shots while super-sub Faisal Aden shot 3-for-9, and against a team as sound defensively as Butler you can't win that way. The other factor would be senior guard Zach Hahn snapping out of a six-game shooting slump. Hahn, who had scored a grand total of 11 points in those six games, scored 14 (3-6 3PT) and along with Andrew Smith gave the Bulldogs four scorers in double figures. You know that Butler's going to play defense (with point guard Ronald Nored leading the way), but if players such as Hahn, Smith and Shawn Vanzant (not to mention freshman Khyle Marshall) can supplement the scoring of Howard and Mack on a consistent basis this once again is a team that will be a tough out come March.

2. Could Colorado State find itself in a similar situation as Minnesota come March (Friday night)?
This isn't to compare the skill levels of the Rams and Golden Gophers so much as it is to note the power of the leagues they play in. After Minnesota won the Puerto Rico Tipoff the question was how Tubby Smith's team could be pegged sixth in the Big Ten and the same could stand for Tim Miles' team, winners of the Cancun Governor's Cup. CSU came back from a five-point halftime deficit to derail Southern Miss 63-58 on Friday night thanks in large part to the frontcourt tandem of Travis Franklin (25 points, nine rebounds) and Andy Ogide (15 points). The Rams scored eight of the game's final ten points and took care of business from the foul line, winning despite the backcourt trio of Wes Eikmeier, Dorian Green and Andy Nigon supplying just 15 total points. However, Green and Nigon have shown the ability in the past to be more than capable perimeter scorers. Add in sixth man Jesse Carr and Coach Miles has a team that can give opponents a hard time. The question is whether or not their standing in the Mountain West will accurately display said improvement. That quartet atop the Mountain West (San Diego State, BYU, UNLV and New Mexico) will be tough to crack so judging the Rams solely on where they finish in the standings could be a bit harsh should they land in fifth, and the same goes for Minnesota in the Big Ten.

3. Indiana drops their Big Ten opener and you have to be concerned about this team as a result.
Tom Crean's team went into Monday's game against Penn State without a signature win of any sort, falling to each of the four teams expected to either beat or challenge them on paper. Given that fact it's hard to gloss over their 69-60 loss to the Nittany Lions at home for a program that hopes to get back to postseason play of some sort come March. Penn State, who was without freshman guard Taran Buie (suspension), was led by Jeff Brooks (career-high 23 points, 9-12 FG) and the trio of Brooks, Talor Battle and David Jackson combined to score 57 of the Lions' 69 points. Maurice Creek mad just three of eight shots coming off the bench for Indiana but that was better than starter Christian Watford, who made just one of six from the field. The Hoosiers didn't shoot well (42.6% FG) but to allow Penn State to make 58% of their shots in the second half is poor and Indiana also failed to get to the foul line. IU attempted just eight free throws to twenty-six for Penn State; they're not good enough offensively to survive such a disparity. If Indiana is to make a postseason tournament these are the games they can't afford to lose, especially when looking at their next five games (Ohio State, at Minnesota, at Northwestern, Michigan and at Wisconsin). This is a team that could find itself 0-6 in league play, and despite the accepted idea that Coach Crean would deserve a shot with a talented 2011 class coming in one would have to wonder if a tailspin would change that idea. But with more performances like tonight's there wouldn't be much need for concern in regards to where the Hoosiers could be playing come March.

Top Three Games

1. Portland 66, Nevada 62 The Pilots shot just 37% from the field but thanks to Nemanja Mitrovic's 22 points they were able to survive the struggling Wolf Pack at home. Dario Hunt led Nevada with 21 points and 14 rebounds.

2. (6) Pittsburgh 78, (4) Connecticut 63

3. Penn State 69, Indiana 60

Three Notable Performances

1. G Preston Knowles (Louisville) 31 points (9-14 FG, 6-9 3PT) in the Cardinals' 104-74 demolition of Morgan State.

2. G William Buford (Ohio State) Career-high 23 points to go along with five assists and four rebounds in the Buckeyes' 100-40 pasting of Tennessee-Martin.

3. F Jeff Brooks (Penn State) Scored a career-high 23 points in the Nittany Lions' 69-60 win at Indiana.