It wasn't exactly a throaty victory cry, but that's November basketball for you. Dixon, Pittsburgh's eighth-year coach, was standing in a hallway inside Madison Square Garden Friday night shortly after his fifth-ranked Panthers beat unranked Texas 68-66 to win the championship of the 2K Sports Classic. Pitt had earned a spot in the title game by toughing out a 79-70 win the night before over Maryland, which went on to lose 80-76 to No. 13 Illinois (the other semifinal loser Thursday) in Friday's consolation game.
Why would these teams subject themselves to back-to-back slugfests so early in the season, even though they know they are not at their best? The exposure helps, of course, but the real reason is because the only way for a coach to really learn about his team is to schedule games against quality competition. The action at the Garden wasn't much to look at, but each of the quartet discovered some important things about themselves, both good and bad. Here, then, is a Hoop Thinker's primer on what they learned:
The Good: If you're a fan of quality guard play, this is the team for you. Coming into this week's games, the Panthers were getting more than 80 percent of their scoring from their perimeter players. Against Texas, 48 of their 68 points came from the guards, including 24 from 6-foot-2 junior Ashton Gibbs, the tourney's MVP. Though they can get a little sloppy with the ball (16 turnovers vs. Maryland), Pitt's guards can all handle, pass and shoot. And since they're mostly upperclassmen, they showed they can keep their poise down the stretch. Their 7-for-14 shooting from three-point range was decisive in the final against the Longhorns.
After that win, Dixon expressed surprise that the Longhorns were able to out-rebound his team. They did -- by two. Travesty! Pitt showed this week that it can be a physically overpowering team. Against Maryland, they owned the boards, 49-28. Opponents might be able to match Pitt's toughness, but it's doubtful they'll ever exceed it.
The Bad: You're not going to win a lot of games going 13-for-24 from the foul line, as Pitt did against Texas. That's below the rate they had been shooting coming into the game, but you have to wonder if that's a problem that could rear its head at the worst possible moment.
Another area of concern for Pitt is the flip side of its strong perimeter. Big men Gary McGhee, Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor are excellent rebounders and post defenders, but they are not much of a threat to score. One of the coaches who scouted Pitt told me that running teams should be able to exploit the big guys' inability to change ends quickly. Though the Panthers beat down both of their opponents, they were unable to put either one away until the very end. Yes, Pitt can grind out a game as well as any team in the country, but at some point it would help to go on the occasional 12-2 run.
One last point about Pitt. When I asked an assistant coach who had scouted them to cite an area of weakness, he replied, "Predictability on defense." Dixon has done an excellent job creating a culture of consistency. Theoretically, that should make the Panthers easier to beat, but exploiting their weaknesses is a lot easier scouted than done.
The Good: Rick Barnes told me after the loss to Pitt that he knew three weeks ago that his team was better than people realized. "We scrimmaged Davidson and Gonzaga, and I could see we had a chance to be real good," he said. Still, this team features two freshmen and two sophomores among its top eight players. The Longhorns badly needed a jolt of confidence, and it's clear that they got it in New York.
This tournament was an important learning experience for freshman point guard Cory Joseph, who struggled against Pitt (three turnovers and two points on 1-of-4 shooting) and took an ill-advised shot on the Longhorns' final possession when they had a chance to send the game into overtime. More important, Texas got affirmation that sophomore forward Jordan Hamilton is a much-improved player following a rocky freshman season. Hamilton had major problems with his shot selection last year (that's why he only shot 41 percent from the field), but his decision-making is a lot better now. He is also a more complete player. In the two games this week, Hamilton had 53 points (7-of-12 from three-point range), 15 rebounds and four assists. Pitt may have won the title, but Hamilton was clearly the best player on the floor Friday night.
The Bad: It's one thing to be young. It's quite another when your youngest players are the ones you depend on the most. That's the case with Hamilton, Joseph and 6-8 freshman Tristan Thompson, who was brilliant against Illinois in the semifinal. The Longhorns' immaturity showed in the first half of Friday night's championship game, when the team showed a palpable lack of energy. They may have thought they were ready to play, but they weren't, and it was just enough to prevent them from pulling off the upset.
The other main issue with Texas is that its best offensive player is also one of its worst defenders. Hamilton is so lacking in this department that Barnes substituted for him on key defensive possessions late in the second half against Pitt. "It motivates him," Barnes said. "He knows he has to get better at it. He also knows teams are going to go at him, if nothing else so they can get him into foul trouble." Hamilton better get better at it fast, because if Texas is going to reach its potential, it will need him on the floor as much as possible.
The Good: This is a pretty offensive team to watch. The ball moves. The shots go in. It's a little reminiscent of the Illini squad that reached the 2005 NCAA championship game. In the two games against Texas and Maryland, the Illini shot 20-for-48 from the three-point line. Best of all, the makes can come from everywhere. Seven players sank three-pointers in New York. That's hard to guard.
"They're unselfish," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "When you make a mistake defensively, whoever you made that mistake on, that's where the ball is going to end up."
Also, if there was any doubt that senior point guard Demetri McCamey is poised to have a big year, it was erased in New York. After the game Friday night, Williams made an excellent point about McCamey, remarking that he looks a lot slower than he is, and as a result it catches defenders off-guard. McCamey scored 20 and 22 points, respectively, against Texas and Maryland, and had a total of 13 assists and 5 turnovers. He is clearly on the short list of front-runners for Big Ten Player of the Year.
The Bad: Pretty teams often have trouble winning ugly. Illinois is more committed to toughness this season, but I didn't see much evidence that its collective collar is turning blue. The three stats to watch this season for Illinois will be field goal defense, rebound margin and free throw attempts. Well, Texas took 16 more free throws and out-rebounded the Illini by four. Maryland out-rebounded them by 11, and while the Illini shot five more free throws Friday night, many of those attempts occurred in the last five minutes as the Terrapins were trying to come back. And both opponents shot better than 43 percent. Problems all.
If this part of Illinois' game is going to improve, it's going to have to come from their senior big men, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale. Davis grabbed 12 rebounds against Texas, but he was way too quiet against Maryland, especially considering the Terrapins' best big man, Jordan Williams, was in foul trouble. And Tisdale is simply allergic to the paint. He played 38 minutes in the two games and did not attempt a free throw. That's not how you get Capone.
The Good: Here's a shock: A Gary Williams-coached team is scrappy and tough. With 6:22 to play in the second half against Pittsburgh, the Terps trailed by 10. Against Illinois, they were down 12 with 5:35 to play. In each case they could have folded, yet they hung in, cutting Pitt's lead to four with two minutes to play and clawing to within two of the Illini with 14 seconds left.
Maryland also learned that it has a true budding star in Williams. Though he picked up two fouls early in the first half both nights, Williams still put up 14 points and eight rebounds against Pitt and had 15 and 13 against Illinois. That's impressive considering both opponents had lots of big men to throw Williams's way.
The Bad: Maryland doesn't play offense. They play Oy-fense. The Terps were 2 for 14 from three-point range against Pitt, and they were 5 for 18 against Texas. Against Pitt they were truly atrocious from the foul line, making just two of their 14 attempts, including 0 for 7 in the first half. If the Terps are going to beat good teams, at some point they're going to have to put the biscuit in the basket.
Poor shooting is only a part of the problem. The greater issues come from shot selection and playmaking. That all stems from the Terps' primary deficiency, which is point guard play. One of the real disappointments from the two games in New York is how little production Maryland got out of freshman Pe'Shon Howard, the hero of its last-gasp win over College of Charleston. Howard had four points against Pitt and zero against Illinois on 0 for 5 shooting. Guess he's no savior. Meanwhile, against the Illini the Terps' trio of starting guards committed eight turnovers to just 11 assists. And Steve Blake is not going to walk through that door.
Finally, as one assistant coach who scouted Maryland pointed out, it's if Williams is on the bench, the Terps have no Plan B up front. Better stay out of foul trouble big fella.