Within approximately 24 hours both The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy and CBS’s Seth Davis expressed a similar sentiment via twitter to oddly identical questions.
@mikevukkdka What is biggest thing that will keep Pitt from the Final 4?”—Can they generate scoring chances to beat elite D, shot clock?
Not scoring enough, fast enough RT @jshepler66: What one thing could derail Pitt from making the Final Four?
Ladies and gentlemen, I worry about us as a hoops-watching nation. Last season, we blew off the #1 rated offense in the country for four reasons that I can think of, presented in order of importance.
1) Team had a history of recent tournament disappointments
2) Team lacked player coveted by NBA scouts
3) Team didn’t shoot well (By the end of the season, team ranked 136th in the country in the dreaded field goal percentage)
4) Team’s slower-than-average pace suppressed its scoring a bit.
Of course, that team was Duke, and we can debate forever whether they were truly the best team in the nation but it’s unreasonable to deny that its offense was one of the most prolific last season.
This season, we appear headed down the same road. To say Pitt’s offense could hinder a tournament run is like saying Kemba Walker’s ability to hit late jump shots will hinder UConn’s chances of success. Sure, eventually Walker will come up empty on a final game-deciding possession, just as someday Pitt’s offense will have a bad game. But that misses the point.
The Panthers’ offense is very similar to Duke’s last season. They make three-point shots, they don’t commit many turnovers, and they get to the free throw line a fair amount. And as the Panthers have done in every season under Jamie Dixon, they also crash the boards relentlessly. Don’t get me wrong, 2011 Pitt isn’t exactly like 2010 Duke. The biggest difference, though, is that Pitt makes a much higher percentage of its two-point attempts (52.3% to date compared to Duke’s 47.0% last season).
Normally, I wouldn’t hold someone to the idea that the #1 rated offense in my system is definitely the best offense, because in any measurement there are sources of error and there is uncertainty in how past performance will carry forward into the future. But Pitt’s lead over #2 is substantial. It’s approximately the same as the gap between #2 and #10.
In addition, in 11 of the Panthers’ 19 games, they have produced the best or second-best offensive performance its opponent has seen this season. (You can see how each game ranks relative to the opponent on the newly-enhanced Game Plan page). The worst effort by Pitt relative to its competition was the 1.10 PPP game against Providence, which was the 7th best showing in 18 games the Friars have played. Their offense has succeeded against many types of defenses, both in terms of quality and style. They’ve played well against the aggressive press of Tennessee, the passive press of Maryland, the extended man defense of Texas, and the lane-protecting zone of Syracuse.
Like 2010 Duke, Pitt has a recent history of highly-rated teams experiencing tournament disappointment. Like Duke, there doesn’t appear to be a future NBA all-star on Pitt’s squad. Like Duke last season, Pitt plays slow and is misunderstood. For that reason, people associate Pitt with great defense and weak offense despite the fact Pitt hasn’t ranked in the top ten in adjusted defensive efficiency since Dixon’s first season as head coach. They’ve been a top 20 defense only one other time. (Their offense has been in the top ten twice under Dixon, in the top 20 on three other occasions, and 21st on another.)
I can pretty much guarantee Pitt will have a bad offensive game eventually. Since 2003, only 2009 UNC went through an entire season without playing a game below 1 PPP. So it will happen, probably multiple times, and maybe it will happen early in the tournament, costing the Panthers their first trip to the Final Four in the modern era. But if there’s one team you wouldn’t expect it to happen to, it’s Pitt. Its offense should be the subject of feature stories, not doubts.