Monday, November 30, 2009

Looking Ahead

Pitt will look to not only get it's season back on track after the WVU loss, but officially make it a success with a win this weekend.

No one needs to be told how big the game is:
The Pitt Panthers will play their most important home game since 2003 Saturday when they entertain No. 5 Cincinnati (11-0, 6-0) to decide the Big East championship.

In 2003 the Panthers (9-2, 5-1) played host to Miami on the final day of the season. The Hurricanes dominated the Panthers that day and Pitt had to watch a Big East championship and a BCS berth be awarded to a visiting team on its home field.
I kind of disagree with that sentiment. That 2003 team wasn't as good as this year's team in my opinion and probably wouldn't have stood much of a chance in a BCS bowl. Their losses leading into the Miami game included a shocker to Toledo and a blowout against WVU. That team would have struggled to get to ten wins, while this team can STILL win ten games even with a loss to Cincinnati. This game is so much bigger for Pitt, who stayed in the top ten for a few weeks this year and really got back on the national landscape. Plus with a national telecast against Cincinnati, the entire nation will be watching. Another thing - if Pitt can manage to win this game, it would give them to very strong seasons back-to-back. That's the kind of momentum needed as Pitt will likely head into next year with a potential top 15 preseason ranking.

And I don't subscribe to the theory that the WVU loss will still hurt if Pitt can make the BCS bowl. I'd take a WVU loss every year if it meant winning the conference. Yes, it's a rivalry game. But by no means is it the disaster being made by some.

I don't know how much difference that it will make, but an extra day of preparation is always a good thing:
“Obviously with the extra day, since we played Friday, it gave us the opportunity to move in the direction of Cincinnati from a preparation standpoint. That’s where are players are at. That’s obviously where the coaches are at.
It's good to know that it was at least partially initiated by the players:
For the Panthers, there is simply no time to ruminate. That's why the team captains spoke up in the locker room afterward and canceled today's scheduled day off in favor of film work and early preparation for the Cincinnati game Saturday.

The Big East title is at stake.

"We just talked about it," said linebacker Adam Gunn, one of the captains. "We told everyone we're coming in (to the practice facility). Everyone will be there at 12. All of us captains spoke up and said, 'Backyard Brawl, we wanted to win; now it's time to win the Big East.' "
The Dave Wannstedt press conference really focused on moving forward. I was surprised that I counted exactly one, and only one, question about the WVU game. Everything else focused on the Cincy game.

As expected, it doesn't appear as if Aaron Berry will miss the game as Dave Wannstedt said he is definitely starting. All hands on deck will be needed for Cincinnati's passing attack, which ranks nationally 6th in passing offense and 1st in passing efficiency. Those stats are made possible in part to their offensive line, which ranks 5th nationally with only .82 sacks allowed per game.

Yep, it's gonna be a big one - dopey Turn It Blue promotion or not.

Sunday, November 29, 2009 Week 13 Blog Poll

1 Florida 1
2 Alabama 1
3 Texas
5 Boise State
6 Cincinnati
7 Oregon 2
8 Ohio State 2
9 Iowa 2
10 Georgia Tech 3
11 Pittsburgh 3
12 Penn State
13 Brigham Young
14 Virginia Tech 4
15 Miami (Florida) 5
16 Houston 2
17 LSU 1
18 Southern Cal 3
19 West Virginia
20 Oregon State 2
21 California 2
22 Oklahoma State 7
23 Nebraska
24 Utah 1
25 Central Michigan
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: North Carolina (#17), Clemson (#19), Mississippi (#24).

I wasn't trying to play the homer with Pitt, voting them four spots higher (at #11)than their highest ranking in the polls. I voted them ahead of Penn State, whose best win may be versus Temple, and ahead of three-loss teams Virginia Tech, Oregon State, and LSU mainly because Pitt has played decent teams in a BCS conference and has one fewer loss to this point. Plus Pitt's most recent loss was to a pretty good team who happens to be a rival and was on the road. Not exactly a bad loss. And if you STILL think I'm playing the homer card, I also only dropped Georgia Tech three spots as well. I don't subscribe to the theory that losing later means it should count more than losing earlier.

Panic Alert

As Jim Rome would always say during his popular annual 'Smackdowns' in describing callers who had not yet gotten through nearing the end of a show, "Panic Alert, clones."

That's kind of how I'm feeling after the WVU loss. Not so much because Pitt can't accomplish their goal - they can. All it will take is a win against an undefeated top five team. Not an impossible task, but certainly no guarantee.

I'm not going to recap the game for a variety of reasons - the main one is that I don't have the strength. Pitt looked pretty bad in this one compared to how they played all year and was unable to make big plays other than the 50-yard TD pass to Baldwin. Lots of things contributed to the loss - Stull's poor game, Dan Hutchins blowing an early makeable field goal, the defense giving up the long TD run to Noel Devine, Wannstedt's inexplicable decision to attempt a 53-yard field goal rather than play for field position, allowing the Mountaineers to run all over the place during the last drive, etc., etc., etc. There's just not enough time, people.

But I do want to focus on the bowl situation because I think it merits some discussion.

Notre Dame's loss guarantees that the Gator Bowl will have to select a Big East team - i.e. WVU or Cincinnati. Pitt's loss to WVU now likely (if not certainly - I'm not sure if the Gator Bowl has to take the 2nd place Big East team) gives Pitt no shot at that bowl. Had the Panthers won that game, but lost to Cincinnati, 10-2 regular season with a Gator Bowl bid doesn't look so bad. But now, the prospect of a 9-3 season with a Car Care Bowl bid has the feeling of last year - only the Sun Bowl is a bit more prestigious than the Car Care Bowl.

Even though it may sound foolish to some, I think the WVU loss makes the Cicninnati game even more of a must-win. There are some who subscribed to the theory a short while back that it was BCS or bust for Pitt. I know - I was one of them. But last week, I conceded that a Gator Bowl bid and 10-2 season would have been a step forward. Now, with the possibility of another 9-4 season, Pitt better come out ready to play in order to get their 2009 campaign back on track. A loss to Cincinnati would feel disastrous - at least to me.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Tradition Like No Other

Okay, so maybe it's not that big of a deal. But after some early focus this week on, *gasp*, basketball, time to turn my attention span to the Backyard Brawl tomorrow. I'm not sure of the reason, but this year, I haven't gotten into all the hype that surrounds the game. But make no mistake, this is a HUGE game. For one thing, the 2007 game which has gone down in one of the series' best, has played a huge part in the direction the teams have taken since then. We all know the ramifcations from that game - the departure of Rich Rod, the Big East losing out on a potential national champion, the huge boost in Pitt recruiting, etc. Dave Wannstedt talks about that recruiting, which just may be the thing that's helped Pitt get back in the national spotlight:
“I remember going out there for pregame warm-ups and the recruits were all lined up on the sidelines and I looked over and could see all of these kids that we were recruiting and that they were recruiting. Within 10-14 days (after the game) we got eight commitments. Two or three of those kids that were right there (at the game) committed with us.”

And then because of the proximity of the schools, of course there are folks with ties to both sides.

Many of the stories I've seen this week are focusing on the two players who may decide the game - running backs Dion Lewis and Noel Devine. They might also be the best offensive players on the field as well and Dion Lewis leads the conference in rushing.

Coach Wannstedt apparently isn't too thrilled on the statement the guys blocking for Lewis are trying to make:
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt isn't a fan of his players drawing attention to themselves with their outward appearance — especially before the Backyard Brawl — so he was a bit torn about his starting offensive linemen sporting bleached-blonde Mohawk haircuts this week.

"You better be ready to back it up — that's what I told them," said Wannstedt, a left tackle at Pitt in the early 1970s. "The great thing about playing the offensive line is nobody knows who you are except the people in that meeting room and that building. We know how important they are.

Personally, I don't know what the big deal is. Haircuts - really? That's what we're worried about?

Even though the game does get some national attention, it's not considered in the upper eschelon of rivalries outside of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Ohio State/Michigan, Auburn/Alabama, even Florida/Tennessee are all probably considered bigger games for one simple reason - many national champions have come from those teams. For Pitt/WVU to get any bigger nationally, the game is going to have to have more at stake and the teams will have to regularly be ranked in the top 15.

Brian Bennett at also looks to see if Pitt will be looking past this game ahead to the matchup against Cincinnati for the title. Personally, I really hope that's not the case as Pitt can still finish third in the conference and give West Virginia the Gator Bowl. If Pitt gets past WVU tomorrow but loses to Cincy, the Gator Bowl is not locked up, but I'd think the committee would have a hard time picking a 7-5 Notre Dame team (should they beat Stanford, which is hardly a guarantee) over a 10-2 Pitt team.

So what am I looking for tomorrow? I'm looking for a close game and a Pitt win. This is the most complete Pitt team I've ever seen and while a loss is possible in a rivalry game such as this, I'd be shocked if they lost this year. Pitt just looks to be entirely too good and konws what's at stake.

Pitt 27 / WV 21

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Valiant Effort

At least it was for 30 minutes or so.

Casual Pitt fans who didn't stay up to watch the game might look at the 16-point loss and think the game wasn't that close. But those of us who stayed up to watch saw a different picture.

Pitt played well in the first half, despite great defense by Texas, and actually had a slim halftime lead. And just when you thought they might be done, they played another strong 10 minutes, keeping pace with Texas. The thing I noticed, though, was that Texas' players were generally just quicker. Maybe not necessarily better (though that was probably the case, too), but just quicker - offensively AND defensively.

I kind of fall into the camp of Gary McGhee when I say I'm encouraged, but the difference between he and I is that he actually PLAYS for the University. Maybe I'm reading a bit too much into this comment, but it seems that he was happy with the effort. I don't think that will play too well in the Dixon camp:
"We can build a lot from that game," said junior center Gary McGhee, who recorded his first career double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds and was named to the all-tournament team. "We learned we can fight, and we learned that we can play with anybody."

Coach Jamie Dixon had a different perspective. His team had a four-point lead with 16:04 remaining in the game. For Dixon, the game was viewed as a lost opportunity.

"We expected to win," Dixon said. "We didn't expect to come in here and be encouraged by a loss. There are some things we can gain from this, but there is no satisfaction in a loss."

Maybe it was because he played a strong game with 11 points and 7 rebounds, but he needs to learn that Pitt isn't happy with 'playing with anybody' - even in down years. This is one of the top programs in the country over the past 10 years and it's hard to take a 16-point loss well.

Meanwhile, it's clear that Dixon is bringing Dante Taylor along slowly as he only played 6 mninutes. With Texas' bigger players, I would have figured he was a cinch to get about 20 minutes, but Dixon apparently felt otherwise. His 15 scoreless minutes (with only one rebound) against Wichita State also probably didn't help his cause. I have to admit, they're bringing him along a lot slower than I anticipated - especially with the lack of height on this team (at least as far as guys getting significant minutes).

Back to the game.

Even going ten deep, Pitt seemed a little worn out in the 2nd half and the halfway point was when things started to turn sour:
With the score tied 51-all with 10:48 to play, Jones converted a three-point play to give Texas a 54-51 lead and start a 14-3 run.

Jamie Dixon was honest about the game:
"It just came down to execution and they executed better in the second half than we did," said Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon. "They got better shots than we did, that's the bottom line. The percentages indicate that. They shoot 65 percent in the second half, we shoot 37 percent."

On Texas' side, they may have won the battle, but lost a war as one of their starting guards is out for the season after a freak pre-game injury. Here's hoping he can fully recover.

It was a decent effort, but to be honest, Pitt flat out wasn't good enough. They're not going to be one of the best teams in college basketball this year, but if they can get into the tournament, a couple of wins may be possible. And like I keep saying - they WILL get better with the return of Jermaine Dixon and Gil Brown. This was a great game for a young team early in the season. If they can get through the rest of the non-conference schedule (which could be tough with games still against Duquesne and Indiana), they will have a good jump on getting into the tournament.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Easier Than Expected

I have to say I was a little surprised at how well Pitt played. I was expecting maybe a 6-8 point win and wouldn't have been shocked to see a loss. This game had all the makings for an upset - the first 'road' game of the year for a young team against a quality mid-major who was pumped up for the game. Instead, Pitt came out and played well in the first half, and even better in the second, winning by 13. Yes, Pitt let them hang around a bit much for my liking, but when they stepped it up, really put WSU away.

With a younger, smaller team, I expected this team would run more. What I didn't expect was to see them play so under control. The team last year was obviously better, but I have to admit this team is remarkably fun to watch. They get up and down the court quickly, yet are still disciplined and play good defense. The rebounding still needs work as evidenced by the -2 differential, but playing three guards a lot of the time will cause that. And the good news is that most of these guys will probably be staying all four years.

This game was really the Travon Woodall and Ashton Gibbs show and could be a sign for things to come. They shot over 50% from the field and combined for 37 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds, and 5 steals. Gibbs is an absolute sharpshooter and Woodall (who may have been the beneficiary of extra attention being paid to Gibbs) was aggressive all night, driving to the basket and making plays happen. He should have had even more assists had guys not missed wide open shots. It's going to be interesting to see what kind of role he has next year with Isaiah Epps coming in. Now I don't want to look too far ahead, but Epps had apparently been told he could start. If Woodall keeps playing the way he did tonight, it would be hard to sit him. A lineup of Epps, Woodall, and Gibbs in two years could give teams fits.

And speaking of Gibbs, he's starting to look more and more like a leader. Unlike Wanamaker who can be streaky at times, he looks like the real deal. Wanamaker had played well this year, but reverted back to his freshman days at times tonight. Playing out of control, missing shots, and turning the ball over.

Dante Taylor, meanwhile, wasn't able to do much of anything. The official 'minutes' report isn't out yet, but Gary McGhee seemed to play quite a bit and I don't remember seeing too much of Taylor. He finished with a quiet 0-2 and two rebounds.
McGhee on the other hand went 4-4 from the field for 10 points, 6 rebounds, and was a force offensively getting good position all night long.

Next up, Pitt likely will play Texas assuming they beat Iowa (who lost to Duquesne). Jamie Dixon couldn't have drawn it up any better as this is a perfect game for Pitt. They're playing a more veteran, top five team at a neutral site early in the year. It's an excellent litmus test and while I'm not sure Pitt can win, I'd be surprised if they were embarrassed. Even if they can't pull off a win, it certainly isn't a bad loss. We should know a lot more about Pitt afer tomorrow night's game.

Oh, and enough of the Wichita State crowd crying seemingly after every play. Really. Enough. Blog Poll Week 12

1 Alabama 2
2 Florida
3 Texas 2
5 Boise State
6 Cincinnati
7 Georgia Tech 1
8 Pittsburgh 1
9 Oregon 2
10 Ohio State
11 Iowa 1
12 Penn State 1
13 Brigham Young 1
14 Houston 1
15 Oklahoma State 1
16 LSU 7
17 North Carolina
18 Virginia Tech 1
19 Clemson 2
20 Miami (Florida) 3
21 Southern Cal 1
22 Oregon State
23 California 1
24 Mississippi
25 Utah 8
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: Wisconsin (#18), Stanford (#20), Rutgers (#25).

Made several changes this week after giving the poll a longer look:

1. Reordered my top three as I kind of lost track that Texas' best wins aren't as good as Florida's or Bama's.

2. Moved Pitt below Georgia Tech for the same reason.

3. Moved Utah way down for the same reason.

4. I'm still amazed how the pollsters try to justify Oklahoma State being ten spots higher than Houston despite OK State having any wins of note, both teams having the same record, and the fact that Houston beat them AT Oklahoma State.

Scheduling Mission Accomplished

Paul Zeise of the PG reports that Pitt finally filled the much-anticipated spot in their schedule with...

Florida International

Not a 1-AA team, which is a good thing. I heard a radio interview this weekend with Steve Pedersen and he sounded extremely against the idea of scheduling a 2nd 1-AA team with New Hampshire.

Personally, I know that fans like to see the big name non-conference opponents, but how many title contenders do you see scheduling those types of games? Florida plays Florida State, but to schedule big-time non-conference games is only a recipe for disaster in my humble opinion unless it's a rivalry game like say, Penn State.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Two Games to Go

On the bye week, I found myself asking this question - at what point would I be satisfied this season? As I debated the answer, another question entered the picture - what would constitute a successful season?

These questions are as different as night and day in my opinion. Here's what I came up with.

At this point in the season, 9-1 has obviously exceeded all expectations. No reasonable Pitt fan could have predicted this kind of overachieving success. Even Rocky Balboa thinks Pitt has played over their heads. And even if you argue that Pitt's talent could have been enough to get them to 9-1 (which I think it is), how many times has Pitt disappointed over the years, losing to teams they should beat, etc? They even couldn't resist the urge to play beneath the competition once this year, but at least it's only happened once. At this point, I think it's pretty clear that only a trip to the BCS game would be satisfying. I also think if they got there and had another apocalyptic collapse (see Utah) by, say, losing to Alabama by 30, that would be a huge disappointment. Another blowout in a BCS game would really look bad for Pitt and help negate so much of the positive energy that's been built up.

Regarding a successful season, Pitt desperately needs to get to ten wins. Even if they lose to WVU AND Cincinnati, but can come back and win a bowl game, to get to ten wins would be nice. Admit it - coming into the season, many fans would have probably settled for nine. Sure it may be harder to call it a success if Pitt happened to drop both of their remaining games, but looking at the big picture, a 10-3 season isn't so bad. Both remaining games are winnable but it's possible to lose both as well. And one more thing...

While it's nice that the Gator Bowl is back in play for the conference with Notre Dame doing their best 1951 L.A. Dodgers impersonation, remember that Pitt can still very easily fall to third. Losses to the couchburners and Cincy coupled with a WVU win over Rutgers will make that a reality. Additionally, the Gator Bowl can also select a 7-5 Notre Dame team over a 9-3 Big East team. So if WVU happens to finish second, they could still be bumped to the Car Care Bowl, forcing Pitt to, *gulp*, the bowl.

It's very important that Pitt win at least one of those games. While a BCS bowl is the ultimate goal, a Gator Bowl bid wouldn't be the worst thing in the world...

That would be the Car Care bowl.

Not Much Movement

The new football polls are out and Pitt remained 8th in the AP poll and 9th in the USA Today poll. They gained votes in each one, just not enough to move them up another notch.

They also remained 9th in the BCS poll, despite LSU's (who was 8th) loss. Oregon jumped them due to their win over Arizona.

At this point, the polls don't mean much - it's all about trying to get to a BCS bowl.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Bit Longer

It looks like that Jermaine Dixon return is put on hold yet again.
Pitt senior guard Jermaine Dixon will be out another two to three weeks while he rehabilitates a slow-to-heal foot injury. Dixon will miss next week's O'Reilly Auto Parts CBE Classic in Kansas City as well as the home game against Youngstown State Nov. 28.

That's not really a huge surprise in my opinion. In the quotes I've seen from Dixon, he sounded kind of undecided when he might come back. Here's one where he emphasized the need to be cautious.

It's not a huge setback if you really think about it. Pitt has an abundance of guards/small forwards that have been filling in pretty well. And even if he got back in time for the Wichita State and Texas/Iowa games, he wouldn't likely be at 100% and would be seeing his first game action of the year. It's best that he rest a bit and get back healthy for the Big East season. His leadership will be needed as the games will get kicked up a notch.

That 2-3 week timetable would put him back right around the Indiana game at MSG on December 8th. After that are three more non-conference games before the Big East season gets underway.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The "Preseason" Continues

Yeah, I know - it's not really the preseason. Still, it kind of feels that way...even if Pitt struggles a bit at times.

Pitt was able to pull out a 71-60 win against Eastern Kentucky. The home team looked good in the first half, opening up a 15 point lead, then seemed to take it easy in the second. They came out really sluggish looking and only scored one basket in the first six minutes while getting outhustled by EKU. Not good, but I guess they'll learn and I wouldn't be surprised if slacking off cost them a game down the road.

While EKU closed the gap late, I never really got the feeling that they could pose a serious threat - mostly because our defense really stepped up when they wanted to and while their shooting was okay (40% from the field), it was by no means lights out. Still, overall, EKU played reasonably well and didn't back down.

Wisely, I think Jamie Dixon is playing down the inexperience factor:
“Most of our guys have been playing the most minutes that they’ve ever played at this level. I don’t think we’re inexperienced. There are teams that think they are and they continue to stress the fact that they are inexperienced. For us, I think we’ll play as experienced as we went to be. It’s just a term and it doesn’t define you unless you allow it to.”

It's an excellent point and while there will be growing pains with this team, by the time the Big East schedule rolls around, they should have a good feel for the college game. Plus (and I keep mentioning this), Jermaine Dixon and Gil Brown will help in a big way with leadership and playing down the stretch in close games.

Oh, and one of the most meaningless statistics in all of sports reared its ugly head:
Pitt tied a school record with 12 blocks in the game. Freshman center Dante Taylor and junior center Gary McGhee each had four blocks apiece.

Plenty of bright spots in the game including:

1. Rebounding - True, EKU's tallest player was 6'7". But a dominating 47-25 edge on the boards is the type of performance Pitt fans are used to.

2. Lamar Patterson looks like he could contend for minutes - 10 points / 4 boards in 19 minutes of action including hitting a few threes.

3. Nasir Robinson looks like the real deal and should be a very solid player for this year and beyond. With 15 points tonight, he's averaging 10+ points and 6 rebounds per game. One thing that worries me a little is that he looks really uncomfortable playing on the perimeter. He's going to eventually need to develop an outside shot as he had several wide open looks tonight and didn't take advantage. I may be dating myself a bit, but he kind of reminds me of a better rebounding version of Cedric Ceballos. Ceballos would get the garbage buckets and even averaged about 20+ ppg a couple of years with the Lakers in the 90s. Nearly all (if not all) of Nasir's buckets came right around the basket. Nothing wrong with that, though. Chevy Troutman had a pretty good Pitt career doing much of the same thing.

4. Ashton Gibbs may be Pitt's best player. He works well around the screens, hits shots, and doesn't play outside of the flow of the game. He doesn't force bad shots and is extremely patient. He had 20 more tonight and is averaging about 17 per game.

5. Travon Woodall shot horribly (1-8), but had six rebounds and seven assists. He was generally all over the court and played pretty well other than the shooting woes. I feel pretty comfortable with him running the team, but it will be interesting to see how he responds to better competition.

Before we get too carried away, there were some lowlights as well:

1. Free throw shooting at 58% - some things never change. One thing that puzzled me a bit was near the end of the game when EKU was trying to make things interesting. Down about 10 with two minutes left, they should have been probably trying to foul Pitt, forcing them to hit free throws. Instead, they let Pitt run the clock down twice and didn't go for the foul until about 40 seconds left.

2. Chase Adams again got about 20 minutes of PT, but only had five points. He doesn't look terrible out there, just not real aggressive offensively. Curtis Aiken had some sort of nonsensical comment along the lines of that anything he provides them offensively is a bonus because he's such a great defender. Well, he averaged nearly 15 points a game last year as a junior, so I'd be lying if I said I didn't expect more offense out of him - especially in these early non-conference games.

3. Dante Taylor really is going to need to assert himself a little more offensively. He really showed up on the boards (13) and was a huge presencec defensively (4 blocks), but didn't even get his first shot until about 12 minutes left in the game. I know it's going to take him a while to get adjusted, but I'd like to see him be a little more dominant against these lesser foes. Otherwise, the Big East frontcourts might give him a lot of trouble. I think he'll be fine, though.

All in all, it's hard to complain too much. The most encouraging thing for me was seeing the way they rebounded after Jamie Dixon seemed to put an emphasis on that.

Wichita State on Monday will really be their first road test. Even though it's technically a neutral site, it's in their home state and should probably be basically a home game for them. I could easily see Pitt dropping this one, but either way, we'll know much more about the team after that game.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No Respect

Well the good news about the Pitt / Cincinnati game is that it will be a national telecast on ABC. The bad news is that it's a noon kickoff.

I guess beggars can't be choosers. The other major game that weekend is Florida Vs. Alabama, but that gets a 4:00 p.m. start. It would have been nice for this to be a night game, but heck, in December, that might not be so fun after all.

Tickets are still available and it wouldn't surprise me all that much if this wasn't a sellout (though I expect it will be). Even if Pitt gets past WVU next weekend, it's still a noon kickoff against an opponent many casual fans aren't really all that excited about - even as a top five team. Oh yeah, and it will probably be in the neighborhood of about 30 degrees outside. Fun.

Still, if Pitt can't manage to sell THIS game out, it would be disappointing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Settling In

Pitt looked much better and mroe relaxed in their 71-46 win today over Binghamton that had most of us rushing home from work in order to watch. Just a matter of getting that first game under their belts, I guess.

I was able to catch the end of the first half and the rest of game and have to say Pitt looked much better than the Wofford game. Of course, the reason is probably that Binghamton is playing with seven scholarship players and is not even a shell of last year's NCAA tournament team. Heck, their leading returning scorer didn't even average 5.0 per game last year. Still, it was encouraging to see something much more resembling the Pitt basketball we're used to. The defense was solid, and while the offense could have converted more shots, I was encouraged by the number of good passes and unselfish play.

Surprisingly, there was one similarity between both teams coming into the game. Binghamton held on for a five-point win against D-II Bloomsburg while Pitt struggled as well in the comeback three-point in vs. Wofford.

Ashton Gibbs played a heck of a game, leading all scorers with 22 (17 in the first half), and made 6 of 10 three-point attempts. Travon Woodall (10 points / 13 assists) and Nasir Robinson (7 points / 10 rebounds) also had pretty good games. Gibbs was actually close to a Pitt record for his first-half performance.

Dante Taylor still looks a little out of sync to me. He finished with six points and four rebounds in 18 minutes. Driving home during the first half, on the radio broadcast, Curtis Aiken said that he expected Taylor to be a go to guy within a few games. I'm not sure that's entirely accurate as he doesn't look all that aggressive yet. He should turn out to be a good player, but it's clear he's still in need of polishing.

I'm a bit surprised at Chase Adams' slow start - even though it's only been two games. In 42 minutes, he's only accumulated three points. While he looks like he's just trying to fit into the flow of the game and get a handle on the offense, at some point, he's got to make more plays if he expects to get that many minutes a game.

All in all, a much better performance (though that was to be expected). As I said before, Pitt will get better. With Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown back, they'll have an even deeper team, though I'm curious to see whose minutes will be cut. I'm guessing that other than Lamar Patterson, everyone that is playing now will still see significant minutes - nearly everyone will probably just see a small decline.

Meanwhile, in the 'old news' section, Dixon is still at least a few games from returning. It'd be nice to get him back for the Wichita State game as I expect that to be a tough one...especially because it will practically be a home game for them.

Jamie Dixon gets some love for his coaching of the USA Under-19 basketball team from over the summer.

And it seems like the first PG basketball chat of the year was a bit thin.

Monday, November 16, 2009 Blog Poll Week 11

1 Texas
2 Florida
3 Alabama
5 Boise State
6 Cincinnati
7 Pittsburgh
8 Georgia Tech
9 LSU 1
10 Ohio State 3
11 Oregon
12 Iowa 3
13 Penn State 7
14 Brigham Young 8
15 Houston
16 Oklahoma State 1
17 Utah 1
18 Wisconsin 3
19 Virginia Tech 5
20 Stanford
21 Clemson 4
22 Southern Cal 10
23 Miami (Florida) 9
24 California
25 Rutgers
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: South Florida (#18), Arizona (#19), West Virginia (#23).

With so many top 25 teams losing this week, it was an absolute disaster trying to rank teams properly. I'm sure I've got plenty of flaws this week.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Irish Eyes are Not Smiling

After a hot start, Pitt reverted a bit back to its old ways and nearly suffered a collapse of near-epic proportions before holding on for a big 27-22 win(anyone who predicted that score deserves a medal) against Notre Dame. True, the game had no bearing on their BCS bowl chances. But with all the momentum they've built up, the walk back to the car would have taken a lot longer.

On this night, the game belonged to super wideout Jonathan Baldwin. He did what many outside of Pittsburgh didn't think was possible: upstage Notre Dame receiver Golden Tate:
Until Tate broke loose, Baldwin upstaged Tate and fellow Notre Dame star receiver Michael Floyd. Despite being matched step for step by defender Darrin Walls, Baldwin stretched out all of his 6 feet, 5 inches to catch Bill Stull's perfectly thrown 36-yard touchdown catch late in the second half to make it 10-3. Stull went 15 of 27 for 236 yards and no interceptions.

Baldwin then made an even better grab, a soaring 51-yard grab over Walls -- like him, a former Pittsburgh-area high school star -- to the Irish 29 that led to Dan Hutchins' second field goal, a 38-yarder, and a 13-3 lead. After the Irish punted, Graham ran through half of the Notre Dame defense on a 53-yard run that led to his 2-yard score one play later.

Baldwin made five catches for 142 yards.

Not surprisingly, Baldwin was the one who kept things in perspective:
"We've still got a long way to go, and we've still got to take care of business," Baldwin said.

Baldwin did have some help in freshman running backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. Lewis had 152 yards and Ray Graham's Madden-esqe video game run of 50+ yards helped Pitt along the way.

After a questionable fumble call (and it was no doubt, questionable), seems like someone is getting a bit snippy. Can't say it's something that could have completely blame him. Even though Notre Dame would have been staring at a 4th and long after that overturned incomplete pass/fumble, with Pitt's secondary depleted, a conversion wouldn't have been out of the realm of possibility.


Irish fans and apologists should remember that even if the play was an incomplete pass, you could make a strong argument that it should have been called intentional grounding. Intentional grounding would have resulted in a loss of down and Pitt's ball. So really, enough. And while I'm on the subject, the only thing more nonsensical than the incessant whining about the call was the near mass exodus of fans after falling behind 27-9, even while the game was fairly early into the fourth quarter and with a potent offense.

Back in South Bend, Weis' act could be wearing thin on fans:
This time, there was nothing to second-guess, nothing to what-if about, nothing that Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis could spin as pseudo-progress.

What has become a painfully tired refrain now reads like an epitaph.

Another November nosedive, ND's ninth in 12 such games. Another loss to a ranked team, Weis' 12th in 16 games. Another loss to a top 10 team, a school-record eighth straight after Weis won his initial top-10 clash at Michigan in game 2 of his Notre Dame career.

The first half was a defensive struggle for the most part - until Baldwin's touchdown. That showed the first strike against an Irish defense that struggled a bit.

Meanwhile, Pitt's win helped them to move up three spots in the latest BCS poll, while remaining at #8 and #9 in the AP and USA Today polls respectively. An interesting, further analysis shows that the computers aren't sure about Pitt, as they have the second-highest disparity among top ten teams. One computer ranks them as high as 10th while another somehow has them as low as 15th. Whatever.

Looks like I'm not the only one discussing the possibility of Pitt being considered as a national championship contender. As I broke down before, it'd be a long shot. But the fact that it can even realistically be discussed is unfathomable. Make no mistake, Pitt's best chance to sneak into the picture probably went by the wayside this weekend with TCU and Texas winning. But it was nice to think about it.

Dennis Dodd predicts some bowl matchups and mentions the possibility that the Big East runner-up could also make a BCS bowl. Given Pitt's and Cincinnati's history of TV ratings and record of not traveling well, I think this would be a reach.

Nice to have another bye week - more time to soak up the national spotlight in the top ten.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Well That Was Interesting

This season looks like it's going to be a little harder than anticipated. After a 63-60 nailbiter, the thing that you have to keep into perspective is that Pitt will get better - if only because Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown should eventually be back and will fill important roles. This game looked bad on paper, but Wofford retruned all of its starters and may be a threat to make the tournament this year.

Ray Fittipaldo had it right, calling for a close game.

Just as I was ready to question Gary McGhee getting so many minutes, he was apparently the one who stepped in to score some late baskets. I say apparently because the game wasn't televised and the CBS All-Access froze up so much, I quit trying to watch online. Unless Dante Taylor really comes out and dominates, I think we're likely to see the ol' John DeGroat routine - Gary McGhee starts, but may get less minutes than Taylor. That's fine with me as long as Taylor gets his minutes. McGhee has shown flashes of good play in his first two seasons, but has never really been all that consistent. It would be nice if he can play some quality minutes for them this year - especially early on because the team is going to need some scoring with Brown and Dixon out.

Taylor had a nice game with 13 points on 5-7 shooting and played fewer minutes (19)than McGhee (21). I'd expect him to be playing more minutes than McGhee by the time the conference games come up. But then again, I also expected him to be starting immediately, so what do I know? Wanamaker led the Panthers with 15 and eight players saw at least ten minutes of action.

This year may prove to be Jamie Dixon's greatest challenge and I think any Pitt fan would be hard pressed to criticize him if they can make it to the NCAA's. It's a long year, though, and as I said, Pitt will get better. Maybe making the NCAA's won't be that difficult (though it's hard to envision an easy walk to the dance after this game).

Next up is Binghamton on Tuesday.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lots of Notre Dame Stuff

Lots of Notre Dame stuff to get in with a short hiatus due to....stuff.

But first, Paul Zeise's Redshirt Diaries has a lot of interesting stuff including the deal about the Gator Bowl, Greg Cross redshirting, Dion Lewis possibly leaving earlier than anticipated, and non-conference scheduling. I always hesitate to declare 'must-reads', but this post has a lot of info in it not related to the game this weekend.

So, it seems there are a lot of questions this week.

Can Pitt get to Jimmy Claussen?

Why does the Big East allow Notre Dame to take bowl spots from the conference?

Who should Pitt fans be rooting for in the Cincinnati / West Virginia game on Friday?

Paul Zeise has answers.

Despite Dave Wannstedt saying the game doesn't have the meaning of some other rivalry games back in the day, (which, by the way, it doesn't) make no mistake that this is a big one. Pitt will have a large part of the country paying attention for it for perhaps the first time since last year's bowl game. We all know how that turned out. But seriously, Pitt has a legitimate shot to have an incredible season and even they go on to win the conference, a loss would be a disappointment.

I'm getting way ahead of myself, but a 10-1 season would mean so much to the program in my opinion. Perception is a funny thing. Dave Wannstedt has recruited well since he's been here, but a 10-1 record could legitimately show bigger recruits that Pitt might not be all that far from a run at a national championship. With the schedule getting tougher, this game is the beginning of a possible program-defining stretch.

This is the best way to sum up the game that I've seen:

The game against an unranked opponent falls right before No. 8 Pitt plays archrival West Virginia followed by perhaps the biggest of this season's Big East showdowns - against No. 5 Cincinnati.

Winning probably won't substantially boost the Panthers' ranking. Losing might derail all the momentum they've spent a half-season building. It's the kind of non-conference distraction many players and coaches dislike so late in a season.
There's also been a lot of talk about the different directions Wannstedt and Charlie Weis have gone since their first meeting four years ago, which was also their first game. Had you asked me back then which coach would be with his school longer, I probably would have gone with Weis. I wasn't sold on Wannstedt really until this year. But a lot can happen in four years. Wannstedt is now a trendy pick as a top candidate for Coach of the Year Awards (must be an insider to view) while the Notre Dame media has lots of questions regarding the fate of slumping coach Charlie Weis.

And speaking about coaches, does this mean if Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo takes over at Notre Dame, that Associate Head Coach Norwin Brown wouldn't be retained?

Defensive philosophies are different between each team. Pitt relies on its front four to bring pressure, while Notre Dame uses the blitz quite often. John Malecki and the offensive line will have their hands full. All-World Tight End Dorin Dickerson and the passing game will look to burn them on blitzes.

And speaking of defense, Pitt's secondary will be tested by the Michael Floyd / Golden Tate combination. We should have a pretty good idea whether the secondary's issues have been solved after this game. I think the secondary will be the key to whether Pitt wins or loses this game.

Meanwhile, the City of Pittsburgh officially jumps on the bandwagon with the Turn It Blue promotion. To be honest, it'd be nice if the City supported Pitt a little more in my opinion. You rarely hear of this type of stuff. I'm well aware that Pitt is only one of several universities in the area, but it's the main one as far as athletics are concerned. Despite being a solid football program and recent basketball power in a city that has no NBA team, Pitt always seems to get the short end of the stick when it comes to hyping up the major sports teams in town.

Quick hitters:

- Game preview from the Notre Dame side.

- Dion Lewis makes the cut for yet another award

- Ditto for Dorin Dickerson

- Speaking of Dickerson, here's another 'redemption' piece for Dorin Dickerson

- And I may be wrong on this, but I have a hard time believing Pitt isn't a little more excited than they're letting on about the top ten. It's a big deal.

Now onto a prediction since a post may not happen due to a visit from in-laws. I expect Pitt to win this game as I don't think Notre Dame is a strong as people have been making them out to be. I think the only thing that may keep it close is if the secondary plays poorly. I don't expect the ND defense to shut down Pitt's offense, but they are fully capable of outscoring them.

Let's go with 30 - 24, Pitt.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Movin' On Up and a National Championship Scenario

I tried to avoid that headline. I really did. But it's the only suitable one I could think of that required less than one minute of thinking, which is all I was willing to devote to it.

As expected, Pitt moved up in the polls, coming in at 8th and 9th in the AP and USA Today polls respectively. This is the first time since 1982 that Pitt cracked the top 10 in November.

What was more surprising was that they only managed to move up one spot in the BCS poll, even while three teams in their vicinity (Oregon, PSU, and LSU) lost. Now, they moved up over Oregon and PSU, but here's where it gets tricky. LSU who was 9th and lost actually moved UP in the poll. Huh? Ohio State moved ahead of Pitt based on their win vs. PSU, which I don't agree with, but can at least SORT OF understand.

I wouldn't get too concerned about the BCS poll because when you come right down to it, it doesn't really matter to Pitt. The only scenario that would have Pitt fans maybe up in arms is if Pitt somehow got in the picture for the National Championship game (Yes, I said National Championship). Barring something preposterous, the winner of the Florida/Alabama SEC championship game will be in the national championship. So without further ado, here's the only scenario I see for Pitt to play for the title:

- Pitt wins out beating a previously undefeated Cincinnati team giving them one excellent win. Yes, it would take a bit of work, not not entirely implausible.

- TCU loses next week to Utah - While it would be an upset, it wouldn't be impossible.

- Boise State loses one of their remaining games (Idaho, at Utah State, Nevada). Boise should win all of these, but not a huge stretch for them to fall to Idaho (7-3) or Nevada (5-3).

- That leaves Texas - this is the one that is least likely to happen: Texas somehow loses one of its remaining three games (at Baylor, at Texas A&M, and at Kansas), then loses again in the Big 12 title game. Texas really would need to lose twice for this to happen because I think voters would give a one-loss Texas team the nod over the rest of the teams above.

If all of that happens, you'd have a slew of one-loss teams including Pitt, Georgia Tech, Boise State, TCU, Iowa, Houston, and either Florida or Alabama (whichever would lose the head-to-head matchup in the SEC championship). The voters could be hesitant to vote the loser of the SEC championship game into the national championship as that would be an immediate rematch of the SEC championship. Out of the rest of the teams, you could make an argument for just about anyone with the exception of probably Houston.

Now, I've provided a somewhat reasonable scenario where Pitt could have a chance to play for the title. The problem is that even if ALL of the above happened, there are still some voters (maybe more than some) who would probably vote a two-loss USC or Ohio State team ahead of Pitt. Not to mention, they STILL would be in a large clump of one-loss teams.

Doesn't look like it will happen - I'd place the odds squarely at 2.7%. Still. Blog Poll Week 10

1 Texas
2 Florida
3 Alabama
4 TCU 1
5 Boise State 1
6 Cincinnati
7 Pittsburgh 5
8 Georgia Tech 2
9 Iowa 2
10 LSU 2
11 Oregon 2
12 Southern Cal 1
13 Ohio State 2
14 Miami (Florida) 2
15 Houston 1
16 Utah 2
17 Oklahoma State 2
18 South Florida 2
19 Arizona 2
20 Penn State 9
21 Wisconsin 1
22 Brigham Young
23 West Virginia 2
24 Virginia Tech
25 Clemson
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: Notre Dame (#17), California (#23).

- I moved Pitt up to #7 one spot higher than the AP Poll, moving them ahead of Georgia Tech. I didn't do this as a Pitt fan, but more so because of their dominant performance while Georgia Tech struggled, winning in overtime, versus a bad 4-6 Wake Forest team. Georgia Tech's signature win vs. Virginia Tech is also losing its luster as they've fallen a lot in the polls.

- I hesitantly jumped TCU over Boise this week for a couple of reasons. TCU won in a blowout while Boise struggled a bit. Boise's signaure win of Oregon also looks a little less impressive after Oregon's loss this weekend. The Boise/TCU issue could get a little clearer as TCU plays a one-loss Utah team next week. If TCU can put up an impressive win, I'd imagine more voters would put them ahead of Boise.

- I agreed more with the BCS poll than the AP and USA Today polls on Iowa. I still have them ahead of two-loss USC and Ohio State teams...for now. Iowa's loss to a 6-4 Northwestern team is better than OSU's loss to a 4-6 Purdue team or USC's loss to a 3-6 Washington team. I think OSU will end up beating them, but if you look at the body of work right now, I think Iowa still deserves to be ahead of both teams at this point in the season.

- Penn State took a big tumble, not because I dislike them (which I do), but because I consider a 17-point loss at home to another two-loss team kind of a bad loss. They also don't have one good win on their resume, while some teams I placed ahead of them do (i.e. Oregon who beat USC; South Florida who beat 7-2 West Virginia; Arizona who beat 6-3 Stanford and Oregon State teams, etc).

- Told you so about Oklahoma.