Wisconsin and Pittsburgh meet Friday night in a first-round NCAA matchup that will rekindle what was a nice little mid-2000s rivalry between like-minded programs. The Badgers lead the all-time series 11-7, but the Panthers were the victors in a classic 2003 tournament bout. The two schools also split a home-and-home series in 2005 and 2006, when both programs were hitting their stride. Wisconsin's 89-75 defeat of No. 2 Pitt in 2006 was maybe the loudest I've ever heard the Kohl Center.
But I digress. This game is not about the past. It's about the big, experienced Panthers (21-11, 9-9 ACC) and their lack of marquee wins, against an inconsistent Badger squad that might have peaked too early this season. As rejuvenated giant-slayers under Greg Gard, Wisconsin (20-12, 12-6 Big Ten) has already proven a lot of folks wrong. A first-round exit would still sting though.
I asked Anson Whaley, founder of Pitt blog Cardiac Hill, about the what's been holding the Panthers back the last few years, which player really makes Pitt go, and what similarities he sees between the two programs.
B5Q: After a three-year run that saw Pittsburgh seeded 1st in 2009, 3rd in 2010 and 1st in 2011, Pitt missed the NCAA tournament in 2012, ending a 10-year streak of appearances. Since then the Panthers haven't been seeded better than 8th and missed the tourney again last year. What happened after that 2011 season that might explain the direction the program has gone?
Cardiac Hill (Anson): The most important factor for me has been that Pitt has been forced away from its proven method of stockpiling four-year players. Over the past several years, the Panthers have had more transfer issues than in the past and even lost their entire 2011 recruiting class. In 2011, Top 25 recruit Khem Birch left the program after only half a season. In 2012, Pitt landed top-five player in Steven Adams, but he left after only a modest year and is now in the NBA. The Panthers have only two of their five players from the 2013 class still on the roster. Overall, Pitt has just been inundated with defections and that's made it very hard to get any real type of stability.
The Panthers have replaced those guys mostly with upperclassmen and grad transfers, but have only had limited success there. Pitt swung and missed on some guys and the players they ended up with just haven't been program changers. Certainly not enough to make up for what they've lost in terms of team chemistry and talent.
Elite programs can get by with that type of roster turnover since they are landing the best talent. But in a world where Pitt hovers mostly around three-star and four-star recruits, it gets difficult to put together the successful years they had in the past if you don't have time to develop those players over four years.
B5Q: A dynamic duo of junior forwards Michael Young and Jamel Artis has been a strength for Pittsburgh this season. Is this a Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside situation? Which of the two guys does the offense really run through when Pitt is clicking?
CH: Artis plays more on the outside but both do a lot of damage in the paint as well. Young plays center at times, is the more consistent of the two, and is easily Pitt's best overall player. But the Panthers function best when they are able to get production from both. Artis struggles on occasion, particularly with his shot from the outside. And while other players have shown themselves capable of big games to complement Young, Pitt really needs Artis to win more often than not.
Pitt is only 2-6 when Artis fails to reach double digits in scoring this year, so his game is often a good indication of how the team does. That's not always the case as he had good games in two pretty ugly losses to Virginia and North Carolina this year, but when he is struggling, it makes it very hard for the Panthers to win. To me, Artis is the key to winning games since some production from Young is almost always a given.
B5Q: The Panthers are shooting three-pointers at a 35.1 percent clip, just a bit over the Division 1 average. As I noted earlier this week, though, Pittsburgh has suffered through some terrible shooting performances from the outside. Whom can you trust to stretch the defense from night to night on this team?
CH: Ironically, three-point shooting was one of Pitt's strengths earlier this season. The Panthers ranked much higher in the non-conference games and shot the ball so much better. That didn't last once things got into conference play -- hence the reason for the very modest average you see right now. In reality, Pitt has probably been subpar in terms of the national average if you take only conference play into account.
On a regular basis you really can't trust anybody on this team to be that guy to stretch the floor. The best shooters from long-distance statistically are Cameron Johnson, Ryan Luther, Sterling Smith, and Artis, but none are what I'd consider wildly consistent. Smith started off the year well, but has faded and lost his starting job. Artis is capable, but at under 36%, hardly a consistent threat. Luther and Johnson are the others but they only average about five points per game so their roles are somewhat limited.
It's worth pointing out that both Johnson and Luther have been playing more. Johnson had a huge game against Syracuse in the ACC Tournament and even earned a start against North Carolina in the next game. Luther is getting a lot of minutes now as well and his low averages are due to playing much less earlier in the year. If you forced me to pick a guy that can step up to become that long-range threat, I'd probably be inclined to go with Johnson or Artis. But there just isn't much consistency when it comes to Pitt's long-range shooting and as a fan, all you really hope for is that someone gets hot on any given day.
B5Q: Teams that can hound Badger point guard Bronson Koenig with a small, quick defender have given the junior some troubles this season. While I don't see four-year starter James Robinson in that mold, he's not the prototypical bruising Pitt point guard of years past either. How's Robinson's on-ball defense? Who do you like in this matchup of experienced, turnover-averse lead guards?
CH: James Robinson doesn't play great defense and that's one of the oft-discussed topics among his critics. Robinson's strength lies in his ability to run the offense and make clutch plays. He's made a number of those this season and really saved Pitt's neck a few times either through a late steal, big shot in the final minute, free throws, etc.
Neither player is a particular good shooter so it's difficult to predict which will have the bigger day. If you're looking for someone to shut Koenig down, however, I wouldn't expect Robinson to be the one to do it. He's done a reasonable job on some of the guards he's faced this season, so I'm not calling him a complete pushover. But defense isn't his strength and what Pitt needs him to do is not come out with a 2-9 performance and turn the ball over. I expect that James will play under control and while he might score a ton of points, the Panthers don't really need that from him.
B5Q: What were the expectations for Pittsburgh coming into the season? The Panthers returned four starters and the majority of their production across the board. What problems kept the team from being more consistent in the ACC?
CH: I think Pitt was predicted to finish tenth in the ACC and they were ninth. Overall, this is about where most expected the Panthers to land. The goal coming into the season was to get back to the NCAA Tournament and they achieved that.
In the end, it really came down to the final couple of games for the team and losses on the road to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech really dropped them in the standings. Before those two games, they actually had a chance to finish in the top four and receive a double bye. Overall, they competed fairly well but the ACC schedule was, as it typically is, difficult. Only two games separated fifth and 10th place, so it was a bit of a logjam in the middle after the elite teams. Those last two contests are what really took the luster off of what sort of looked like a nice year before that.
The reason the Panthers didn't win more games is that other teams just had more talent. Pitt has good forwards, but not too much else. There are some good pieces in place here, but Pitt didn't get much out of its center position this year and shooting guard was mostly a mess. To compete better next season, they'll need upgraded play there.
B5Q: I haven't been the only one to note some of the similarities between these two programs, from the slow tempo and emphasis on defense to the consistency of their respective success over the last 15 years. It feels like there is a healthy respect for Pitt on Wisconsin's side. Do you get the same sense on your end?
CH: Yeah, I mean I don't think there's much of a connection between the two schools, so Pitt fans definitely aren't lacking respect for the Badgers. Most of them see the matchup as a winnable one, but realize that the Panthers are probably a slight underdog here. This seems like it could be a game that finishes with both teams in the 60s based on the style of play. But, yes, I do think the styles of play are similar and it will just come down to executes better in that game. Hard-hitting analysis, I know.
B5Q: Prediction time ... what's yours?
CH: I look at what Wisconsin did against the better teams on their schedule, and then I see what they did elsewhere. They seem to be mostly all over the board. Pitt has been inconsistent, but less so. With the Panthers, it's much easier to see what they've got. They are a sound team but generally isn't going to compete well against the elite teams. Most of the time they'll win the games they should but against almost everyone comparable to them, it's a crapshoot.
I think the Badgers have shown more in their wins against so I'd probably go with them by five or something equally generic. But these look like two relatively evenly-matched teams and if you played the game ten times, it might come out 5-5. But that being said, Wisconsin's quality wins can't be overlooked and they've just looked better more often than the Panthers have. Pitt's 1-3 record to close out the season isn't encouraging, either. A Pitt win wouldn't surprise me in the least, I'm just not willing to expect one all things being equal.
Poetic justice would be Koenig ripping Pitt apart to show what kind of shooter he is. Coaxing that type of aggressive performance out of Koenig might be Gard's greatest challenge in this tournament.
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