Sunday, January 28, 2007

Preview of #7 Pittsburgh (RPI rank #4) @.Villanova (RPI rank #16) - Wachovia Center, Monday, January 29, 7:00 PM, ESPN "Big Monday"

by Craig Dimitri

Calling the game for the ESPN audience, will be Sean McDonough (play-by-play), Bill Raftery (color analyst) and Jay Bilas (the first two did the Villanova/Notre Dame contest on Saturday).

The Viewpoint on the #7 Pittsburgh Panthers

Rankings - The Pittsburgh Panthers leapt from #9 in the AP poll on Monday, January 22, to #7 in the latest poll, released Monday, January 29. With two victories, they flip-flopped with previous #7 Oregon, now #9, and also climbed over former #6 Texas A&M, now #10.

Coach - Jamie Dixon (4th season as head coach, 8th including tenure as a Pittsburgh assistant), 95-25 record as head coach.

2006-07 season - 7-1 Big East (1st place of 16 schools), 19-3 overall, after a dominating 72-46 blowout win over St. John's at home on Saturday.

Pitt opened the season in November, at #4 in the AP poll, and has yet to fall out of the Top 10 this season. (One elusive goal: many Pitt teams, including this year's, have reached #2 in the AP poll, but none has ever reached #1 in program history.) They are in excellent shape for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

This program - moribund in the mid-to-late 1990s - has resurrected itself in the 21st century. A victory over Villanova on Monday, would mark the sixth straight season (first under now-UCLA coach Ben Howland, and now Jamie Dixon) that Pittsburgh will have won 20 games. Over the past six seasons, up to and including January 27, Pittsburgh has a winning percentage of .809 - third in the nation, trailing only Duke and Gonzaga.

The Panthers roared out of the gate with an 11-0 start, and have continued to have tremendous success this season. All three of their losses have been to Top 25 teams, with two of them on the road.

Pittsburgh's first two victories were posted against Western Michigan and Delaware State in the first Maggie Dixon Classic, held in West Point, NY. The reason for the tournament: Maggie Dixon was the youngest sister of Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon. She was the head coach of the women's basketball team at Army, and took the team to the NCAA tournament in 2006, the West Point women's first-ever trip there. (During the NCAA tournament, in fact, CBS did a feature story on the Dixon siblings, who were the first brother and sister to coach teams in the NCAA tournament in the same season.) She tragically passed away on April 6, 2006.

Pitt then hosted its own eight-team holiday tournament, the First Commonwealth Colonial Athletic Association Classic, which the Panthers - not surprisingly - won. The Panthers bested Northeastern, Massachusetts, Oakland, and Florida State. They traveled down to Auburn and won, defeated crosstown rival Duquesne back in Pittsburgh, and completed their 11-0 start with a win @ Buffalo.

Their first loss came at then-#7 Wisconsin on December 16. After the fall to the Badgers, Pitt then stumbled at then-#15 Oklahoma State, falling in double overtime, 95-89.

After starting with an 11-2 record, the Panthers have now won eight of their last nine. Victories have come over Dayton and Florida A&M in nonconference play, followed by five consecutive Big East triumphs: @ Syracuse, USF, @ DePaul, Georgetown, and Connecticut. On January 21, they were upended by then-#24 Marquette at the Petersen Events Center in overtime, 77-74. But the Panthers rebounded to win @ Cincinnati, and its most recent victory over St. John's.

The 7-1 start in Big East competition matches Pitt's best-ever start, in their quarter-century of Big East play - the 2003-04 team also started 7-1, and thus a win over 'Nova would mark Pitt's best BE start ever.

Pittsburgh Panthers Starters/Rotation


# 33 Aaron Gray - 7/0 - Center - Senior - 14.7 points/9.8 rebounds/1.6 blocks in 28.2 minutes (Emmaus, PA)

After playing sparingly during his first two seasons at Pitt, Gray emerged last season as a star. Gray's numbers are even more impressive, given that he only averages 28 minutes a game. Of Pitt's 22 contests to date, he has posted 10 double-doubles, and he probably would have had more than 10 if Pitt had been facing tougher opponents in December.

However, Gray plays a lot more against Big East opponents, unsurprisingly. Worth noting: Gray is difficult to foul out; it hasn't happened yet this season, and there have been only four games where he has amassed even four fouls.

#14 Levon Kendall - 6/10 - Forward - Senior - 5.4 points/5.2 rebounds/2.0 assists in 26.8 minutes (Vancouver, British Columbia)

The one of least concern of the five starters. Although a starter, he really should be considered one of the off-the-bench players, in light of his minutes and offensive threat (he's only reached double figures, in four games this season, and has done so only once since November 29). Good, solid rebounder and defender.

(Credit to the Pittsburgh blog - - for this piece of trivia: Kendall had a bit part - known simply as "Additional Basketball Player" - in the 1997 film Air Bud. This fact was first reported in Sports Illustrated. )

#31 Mike Cook - 6/4 Guard/Forward - Junior - 11.9 points/3.0 rebounds/2.9 assists in 23.5 minutes (Philadelphia, Pa. - Friends Central)

Cook excelled for two seasons at East Carolina (he led the Pirates in scoring, reaching double figures 41 times), before transferring to Pittsburgh after the 2004-05 season. After sitting out last season (although permitted to practice with the Panthers), he has moved into the starting lineup as a junior. An accurate three-point shooter, at 42.9% this season.

Home Cooking

More on Cook's local connection, as basketball runs in the family:

Cook's mother, Dawn Hoover, played for Temple from 1979-83, and is now the girls' basketball coach at University City High School (where she had played basketball as well) in West Philadelphia. And his grandfather, Tom Hoover, played at Washington's Archbishop Carroll in Washington, before playing at - you guessed it - Villanova (!), in the early 1960s. Hoover was actually the first player drafted by the 76ers, when they arrived from Syracuse in 1963, according to the Philadelphia Daily News.

#2 Levance Fields - 5/10 - Point Guard - Sophomore - 9.3 points/3.1 rebounds/4.8 assists in 28.4 minutes (Brooklyn, NY)

Fields went through a torrid streak in December and early January, scoring in double figures in seven straight games. Since then, he's tailed off, not reaching 10 or more points in five of the next six (the lone exception being @ Cincinnati on January 24, when he lit up the Bearcats for 18). However, Fields' role is to run the point, not to score, although he's a good perimeter shooter. He has an outstanding assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2.5/1.

#22 Antonio Graves - 6/3 - Shooting Guard - Senior - 10.2 points/2.0 rebounds/2.3 assists in 27.6 minutes (Mansfield, OH)

Graves has drastically improved from his junior year, when he was a mediocre shooter (37.8% from the floor, 28% from three-point range). This year, he's a great one (48.3% from the floor, and a stunning 50% from three point range). One reason may be his selectivity from long range - he doesn't take a lot of three-pointers (only 2.9 3FGA/game), but the ones he has taken have fallen consistently.

Off the Bench

#4 Ronald Ramon - 6/1 - Point Guard - Junior - 9.4 points/1.9 rebounds/2.7 assists in 22.9 minutes/game (Bronx, NY)

Ramon has played significant minutes, since his arrival in Pittsburgh; even as a freshman point guard, he played 26.1 minutes/game. He's more turnover-prone than Fields, though playing almost as many minutes. He's a significant perimeter threat (40.4%) and is also an outstanding foul shooter, making more than 81% of his FTAs.

#5 Tyrell Biggs - 6/8 - Forward - Sophomore - 4.2 points/2.5 rebounds in in 15.6 minutes/game (Nanuet, NY)

Biggs didn't play much as a freshman. This season, his minutes/game average is inflated by the fact that he played a lot against cupcakes in December. In Big East play, his playing time has steadily declined. Of Pitt's eight previous BE games, there were only three in which Biggs played more than nine minutes, and two of them were in blowout victories over South Florida and against St. John's. Don't expect to see him much.

#23 Sam Young - 6/6 - Forward - Freshman - 6.1 points/2.6 rebounds in 14.4 minutes/game (Clinton, MD)

A good rebounder, relative to how little he plays. Of particular concern to the Villanova staff, is the fact that he has occasional spark from three-point range, especially in the last two games @ Cincinnati and St. John's. In each, Young exploded for four three-pointers, connecting on eight of his 15 attempts. Earlier this year, he actually hit seven out of ten against Dayton on December 29. Should Pitt need a three-pointer down the stretch, Young will likely come in as an additional outside shooter.

#1 Keith Benjamin - 6/2 - Guard - Junior - 5.2 points in 12.8 minutes/game (Mt. Vernon, NY)

Benjamin is the eighth of the nine Panthers in the rotation, who has never played more than 18 minutes in any game this year. Probably just comes in to give the starting guards a rest.

Another Philadelphia connection - walk-on junior Maurice Polen attended West Philadelphia High, and was coached there by former Panther Gerald Jordan, who played from 1995-1997.

Overall Analysis of the Panthers

Dixon has a very deep bench, with nine Panthers featured regularly in the rotation. Moreover, all nine play a considerable amount of time, emphasizing team concept over selfish play. Star Aaron Gray averages only 29 minutes/game (tops on the team), while Keith Benjamin, who ranks lowest in minutes/game, still plays a respectable 12 minutes per contest.

As a result, Pittsburgh is a very well-disciplined, well-coached team, which leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, one of the key factors in their outstanding record and lofty national ranking. The other is relentless defense, which has held 19 of its 22 opponents under 70 points. Those elements are a formula for a great many victories.

The Panthers were selected by the Big East coaches as conference champions in the preseason poll, garnering 10 of the 16 first-place ballots (Georgetown was the next-highest selection, with four first-place votes), and Gray was the preseason selection as Big East Player of the Year. (Gray had initially declared for the NBA draft, but ultimately decided to return to Pitt for his senior season.) Both the Panthers as a whole, and Gray in particular, have lived up to that early acclaim. As noted above, Gray's averaging a double-double, with 14.8 pts, 10.4 rebounds per contest, and also blocked 34 shots. Will Sheridan will need to contain him, with help from Shane Clark and Dante Cunningham.

Three other Panther starters (all but Kendall) are legitimate three-point threats, and will try prevent Jay Wright from ordering the 'Nova defense to collapse around Gray. Levance Fields runs the point extraordinarily well, with an outstanding assist-to-turnover ratio of over 2.5/1. Pittsburgh has a great point guard, a great center, great depth, and a diversity of offensive weapons. All told, it's a vast arsenal, one which Villanova will be challenged to overcome.

Villanova/Pittsburgh Series History

Monday's game will be the 55th between the schools, in a series which began in 1960. Villanova leads the series 29-25, and the schools have split the last ten meetings. That latter fact is a little misleading, because Pittsburgh was in the other Big East division for its renaissance, and Villanova was fortunate in often missing them on the schedule.

During the Jay Wright era, he has faced Pittsburgh half a dozen times, going 2-4:

Groundhog Day, 2002 - @ Pitt - 71-59 loss.

March 9, 2003 - This game was legendary for taking place after the phone-code access scandal decimated Villanova, at the end of a highly disappointing season, the year the freshman quartet of Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser arrived on the Main Line. With a skeleton team of six players at the (one-third-full) Wachovia Center for the regular season finale, Wright's gallant Wildcats nearly stunned a top-10 Pitt squad, in what would have been among the greatest upsets in Big East history had it taken place. Wright employed the stallball tactics learned from his mentor Rollie Massimino, but Pitt ultimately prevailed, 56-54. (Sumpter, a fifth-year senior, is the only Wildcat left on the squad who participated in that magnificent effort.)

March 6, 2004 - @ Pitt - 59-45 loss.

February 20, 2005 - Wright finally beats the Panthers, 80-72.

March 10, 2005 - In the rematch in the Big East tournament, 'Nova wins again, 67-58.

March 10, 2006 - One year later, to the day, Pitt tops 'Nova, 68-54, in the BE tournament semifinals. The teams did not meet in the regular season. That game was the occasion when Allan Ray suffered a grievous eye injury early in the second half.

Villanova Update

The Wildcats (3-4 Big East, 14-6 overall) are coming off a difficult 66-63 loss @ Notre Dame on Saturday. It was a game which they let slip away in the final minutes, after leading 60-57. ND went on a 9-0 run down the stretch to hang on and split the season series. (Please see the accompanying Notre Dame recap for more on the game.)

Villanova will be returning to the Wachovia Center for the second time in nine days, after upsetting then-#21 Texas last Saturday, January 20. The Wildcats received votes in both polls released on Monday, January 22. In the more reliable AP poll, Villanova received 46 votes (#29), while in the less reliable ESPN/USA Today poll, the Wildcats received 30 votes (#27). In the Monday, January 29 poll, they will receive some votes, although the loss to Notre Dame probably means that they won't crack the Top 25 just yet. A victory over top-10 Pitt would all but ensure a NCAA bid, as long as Villanova can make it to 8-8 in league play.

(Update on Monday afternoon, January 29, with the latest AP poll:

The Wildcats lost some support over the weekend from AP voters, after winning @ Providence and narrowly losing @ now-#21 Notre Dame. They received just eight votes, down from 46 votes the previous week, and saw their de facto "ranking" in the "Also Receiving Votes" category plunge from #29, all the way down to #43.

Fortunately, Villanova still has a very formidable RPI of ranking of #16, according to RPI guru Jerry Palm, who announces results each Monday, in alignment with the major polls. Moreover, their RPI will continue to rise as more and more BE opponents are added into the mix, such as tonight's contest with #4-RPI-ranked Pittsburgh. )

The most encouraging news was that Curtis Sumpter not only played in South Bend, but excelled, appearing to have nearly fully recovered from his bone bruise suffered in the first ND game, at the Pavilion on Wednesday, January 17.

I'll have a full recap after the game.

Questions? Comments? Information? You can contact Craig Dimitri at

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