Tuesday January 18th, 2011

PITTSBURGH -- It's best, when covering college basketball, not to let your opinion of a team be swayed too much by one game, one half or one stretch. These are teams of collegians that can look terrific one week, awful the next. I suspect this is why national writers (myself included) are so bad at filling out NCAA tournament brackets. Despite our best efforts, we assign too much meaning to the marquee games we see firsthand -- mostly because we've been sent to cover those games and write about what they mean.

And when you attend one of these games -- such as Monday's duel between No. 3 (and undefeated) Syracuse and No. 5 Pittsburgh -- and the home team opens with a 19-0 run, it becomes impossible not to leap to a number of conclusions. It was, as Pitt guard Brad Wanamaker put it, a "shocking" beginning to the battle for Big East supremacy that the Panthers would go on to win 74-66.

In the eight minutes that expired before the Orange scored a single point, it became clear that Pitt was the most versatile, zone-busting team in the country. The Panthers are killer three-point shooters (ranking 26th in the country, at 39.2 percent) but their run consisted of 18 points in the paint and one free-throw. They spread their three guards (Wanamaker, Ashton Gibbs and Gilbert Brown) on the perimeter and rotated the ball while their bigs (Gary McGhee and Nasir Robinson) alternated flashing to the high post and diving to the block. This bewildered the young posts in the back of Syracuse's 2-3 zone (freshman center Fab Melo was yanked just two minutes into the game, never to return), and Robinson was the biggest early beneficiary.

In the first 2½ minutes alone, he scored on a drive and dish from Wanamaker, a drive from the right elbow and then a high-low bounce pass from McGhee. Robinson would finish with 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting and say that coach Jamie Dixon had "preached" all week about getting catches in the middle rather than merely attempting to shoot over the zone. Syracuse has an elite defense (ranked No. 12 in efficiency) because its 2-3 had been extending out to challenge three-point shooters, holding opponents to just 28.1 percent from beyond the arc -- the eighth-lowest percentage in the nation. Pitt gashed the zone with such ease during that run that it seemed reasonable to state that this was the most unstoppable scoring attack in the country. A Final Four team, without a doubt.

And then the Panthers went nearly seven minutes without scoring. While also allowing the Orange to go on a 17-0 run of their own, from 12:12 until 5:36.

Suddenly that Final Four label seemed ... in need of caveats. "We became a little more passive," Dixon would say of that alarming stretch of tentative basketball, in which the Orange sagged back their zone to bother the high-post receivers and the Panthers were slow to adjust. And meanwhile, on D, they were allowing a freshman backup -- C.J. Fair, who was filling in on the wing in injured forward Kris Joseph's role -- to get into the paint for layups.

Where was Pitt's killer instinct? You get a bitter Big East rival down 19-0 in front of a raucous, record crowd at Peterson Events Center, and the last thing you do is mercifully let them back in it. Wanamaker said the 'Cuse's counterpunch "made the game make sense again," because he'd expected a fight. But it was harder to make sense of the Panthers. All of a sudden, they looked like a team with Final Four talent that might not be ruthless enough to succeed in the postseason.

Pitt then answered with a 7-0 surge that made it 26-17. One of the shots was a three by Gibbs -- his first basket of the game. Pitt was leading the No. 4 team in the country while barely getting any offense from one of the premiere scoring guards in the country, a guy who'd been killing man-to-man defenses during the team's 17-1 start. It was a reminder of just how many options the Panthers have -- and just how difficult they'll be to defend in the tournament. Their balance is what, in part, makes them scary.

They then proceeded to give up a 7-0 run, close the half up only four and then let Syracuse tie the game at 41-41 at the 13:51 mark.

This raised concerns about not just Pitt's lack of killer instinct but its lack of an elite D. While the Panthers ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency coming into this game, they were 39th in D -- and teams that make the Final Four and win national titles are typically in the top 10 in both those categories, not just one. Early in the second half they were letting Rick Jackson score inside, they were letting the ice-cold Brandon Triche hit a jumper, they were letting sophomore James Southerland get into a groove with uncontested long-range shots. How can one have long-term confidence in a team that lets a 19-0 lead completely slip away?

But 41-41 became, in slightly more than three minutes' time, 53-44 in favor of the Panthers, and the confidence meter swung back in their favor.

In that decisive stretch of the second half, they showed they were a team capable of crucial adjustments. Dixon ordered his high-post players -- who were increasingly having trouble making plays against the sagged-back 2-3 -- to set more screens for the backcourt. Brown, a wing weapon that they'd yet to fully employ, began getting into the teeth of the 2-3 and showing off an impressive mid-range game that led to him scoring nine second-half points.

And as well as Jackson played in the second half (he was 4-of-5 from the floor for eight points), the Panthers had the personnel to keep him from dominating in the way he did against, say, Michigan State back in December, when he had 16 points and 17 rebounds and mauled the Spartans' frontcourt. Jackson finished with 10 points and 11 boards on Monday, mostly thanks to the work of McGhee, who used his 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame to keep Jackson from backing down into the post and creating space for lefty jab-shots. Brown called McGhee a "brick wall," and McGhee said he was well-prepared to defend the Orange's star power forward. "I used to go against DeJuan Blair every day in practice [two years ago]," he said, "and DeJuan's way bigger."

But when I asked McGhee if the win had any kind of greater meaning for Pitt, he said he wasn't sure. "It shows we do a great job of defending our home court," he said, "and that we do a great job against Syracuse."

Both of those statements are true. The Panthers are always amazing at home -- they've won 51 of their past 52 games there, and they're 9-0 against top-five teams in the building. The Pete is where elite teams go to die. Pitt is always amazing against Syracuse, too: The Orange haven't won in this series since the 2006 Big East tournament, and they haven't won a normal, regular-season meeting since 2004. What we saw on Monday, as impressive as it was at times, was same old Pitt: Protecting its house, dominating Syracuse. But that has never translated into a trip to the Final Four under Dixon. So, as important as the game was in the national landscape, with yet another team being knocked from the ranks of the undefeated, it would be silly to say we truly learned something.

Maybe. Except that Boeheim, when he took the podium for his postgame remarks, said something that could be worth remembering. He complimented Pitt's depth, its defense and its rebounding, and said that it was a better shooting team than he'd seen in the past. "To me, they've had good teams," he said, "but this is a really good team."

This was coming from someone who didn't need to say it. Someone who's used to getting beat by the Panthers, and has perspective that spans seasons, rather than 19-0 runs. If Boeheim can discern a difference in Pitt, then maybe we should, too. There's no way that he could be caught up in the moment, right?

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