FROM PULLMAN — With the rare occasion of a Big East team coming to town, we decided to ask Ray Fittipaldo, the Pittsburgh beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to answer a few questions about the Panthers. He obliged.
A lot was expected out of Pitt this year, as with most seasons. In short – what happened?
Fittipaldo: “Point guard Tray Woodall missed six weeks with an abdominal injury from December through mid January during which time the team lost eight consecutive games. The Panthers also had their starting center, Khem Birch, transfer in mid-December. He wasn't a great player, but he was a good shot blocker and had a defensive presence. There were a myriad of other problems, too, such as poor defense and no inside presence on offense, but the injury to Woodall and the transfer are the two biggest reasons.”
Do you get the sense Pitt is excited to be playing in the CBI?
Fittipaldo: “I wouldn't say excited, but the players and coaches definitely wanted to keep playing. They felt like they were playing their best basketball near the end of the season when they were healthy, and they didn't want to end the season on a sour note. They had played in 10 straight NCAA tournaments, and the Pitt athletic director felt like playing in the CBI was the right thing to do. Jamie Dixon has a lot of freshmen and sophomores, and he wanted to see them in some different situations. He has changed some things on offense with three sophomores and a junior leading the team in scoring in their first three CBI games. Seniors Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson were Nos. 1 and 3 on the team in scoring before the CBI. They are Nos. 4 and 5 in the CBI games.”
How much has Pitt relied on owning the offensive glass to win games this season?
Fittipaldo: “Not as much as one would think from the stats. I know Pitt is one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the country, but the Panthers actually don't score off many of those rebounds because they have subpar post players. They get a ton of offensive rebounds, but they haven't hurt teams with second-chance points.”
What’s been the team’s biggest weakness?
Fittipaldo: “A tie between perimeter defense and the lack of inside scoring punch. Dixon's teams have always been good or great when he has an NBA-caliber center (Chris Taft, Aaron Gray, DeJuan Blair). He likes to play inside-out to open up shooting lanes for his guards. That wasn't the case this season and it hurt the offense. But the inability of the guards to defend has been a huge problem, too. Gibbs can't defend anyone.”
How is the team handling the trip out here, from a logistics standpoint?
Fittipaldo: “Pitt flew out commercial (Southwest) Saturday afternoon through Denver. They were going to practice at Gonzaga Sunday and Monday before busing to Pullman Monday for the game. Dixon knows Mark Few. They are friends. Few practiced at Pitt before the Zags' NCAA games last week. After the game, they are spending the night in Idaho and chartering back the next day.”