Men’s Basketball: Pitt offense slumping heading into NCAA Tournament

By Kelly Flanigan

Under Jamie Dixon’s reign, the Pitt men’s basketball team has become defined by… Under Jamie Dixon’s reign, the Pitt men’s basketball team has become defined by its hard-nosed, gritty defense.

Ranked first for points in the Big East, Pitt has contained the offense of conference teams like Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia and Connecticut all season. On average, the Panthers have allowed a mere 61.4 opponent points per contest.

A good team, however, has a healthy balance of both dependable defense and explosive offense. While finding success in half-court sets is essential, being able to play up-tempo “run-and-gun” offense is equally imperative.

Lately the Panthers have struggled to put points on the board. The problem started early last month, when the team suffered through a five-game streak when they averaged only 60 points per game.

Suspicions of offensive troubles were confirmed in the team’s recent showing at Madison Square Garden at the Big East tournament, where Pitt struggled for each and every one of its 45 points in a 50-45 loss to Notre Dame.

“Taking a quality shot each and every time we have the ball is important,” Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs said. “I think shot selection was a big problem for us, and it was one of the main things where we couldn’t get over that hump, and couldn’t take the lead. We can’t let that happen again.”

In the NCAA Tournament, the team will depend on Gibbs, who scored only four points in the Notre Dame game, to create his own shot off screens. During the regular season, the sophomore guard led Pitt scoring 15.8 points per game.

Chances are that Gibbs, who shoots 40 percent from the field, won’t make every shot he takes, though. And in that case the Panthers need to get second chances.

Gary McGhee, Nasir Robinson, Brad Wanamaker and Dante Taylor all average at least one offensive rebound per game, with McGhee and Robinson pulling down at least two per game. As a team, the Panthers average 12.4 rebounds per game, placing them ninth in the 16-team conference. The more offensive rebounds Pitt gets not only keeps the ball on its end of the floor, but can also open up the perimeter for guards like Gibbs and Jermaine Dixon for uncontested shots.

The rigors of the NCAA Tournament will also demand consistent contributions from Pitt’s backcourt, especially Dixon, the leader on the floor. This includes waiting to get more patient shots from the half-court sets.

In the frontcourt, McGhee and Taylor shoot 60 percent. Gibbs shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc, with Wanamaker closing in at 34 percent from the field. Working the ball inside and out, and having patience, could help the team come up with better shot selection.

To avoid a rough patch in the Tournament, Gibbs said that offense and defense must be in sync.

“Getting the most out of every possession is something [head] coach [Jamie] Dixon has been stressing,” he said. “We’ll need to execute on the defensive end and get stops and rebound. If we do that, offense comes a lot easier and we flow a lot better.”

Carrying his experience from last year with him, Gibbs remarked that the NCAA Tournament is a special part of his college basketball experience.

“This only comes a couple of times in your lifetime. You’ve got to cherish it. It was a great experience getting to the Elite Eight, and now we want to get even further. We’re going to start one game and keep it moving,” Gibbs said.

McGhee, who also traveled to the Elite Eight with the team last year, figures to have a tough task of guarding Oakland’s 6-foot-11 center Keith Benson in the first round. Still, he’s looking forward to another postseason for the Panthers.

“It is an honor, you know, for us to keep getting to the NCAA Tournament each year for nine consecutive years,” McGhee said. “This is a tradition we build, to keep getting to the Tournament every year, and to be successful there.”