March Madness: Statistical keys to Pitt’s tournament hopes

Everyone is telling the same story.

The Panthers haven’t had a bad loss all season. They’ve won a combined 11 games on the road and at neutral sites and have lost only three.

They might even be playing their best basketball of the season, especially considering the fact that fifth-year senior leaders Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna are fully healthy after weeks of battling injuries that slowed the individuals as well as the team.

All those things are true, but the numbers don’t lie.

Come Thursday, when the Panthers begin a journey that they hope will lead them to North Texas at the Final Four, none of that matters.

Instead of opining when exactly the Panthers will exit this year’s Big Dance, or praising head coach Jamie Dixon for bringing his team back to the tournament for the eighth time in nine years — one of only three teams that can say that —  consider the figures that follow.

Using statistics from each conference game, including the ACC Tournament, these numbers should not be mistaken for my suggestions on how Pitt can win games. Instead, they should serve as benchmarks the team must reach, which will give us a good read as to whether or not the Panthers are playing well enough to win games and potentially make a run in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

In every Pitt loss since conference play began, the opposing team has finished the game shooting at least 40 percent from the field.

Dixon uses the opposing team’s field goal percentage as a benchmark in almost every postgame press conference.

And he does so with very good reason.

In Pitt’s eight losses in conference play this season, the opponent has recorded the following shooting percentages: 

Syracuse – 51.2 percent

Duke – 48.3

Virginia – 40.4

Syracuse – 42.9

North Carolina – 44.3

Florida State – 41.3

N.C. State – 47.3

Virginia – 46.7

Defensive efficiency will be key for Pitt, and Dixon said there are a number of things that contribute to keeping that number down.

“We didn’t hold them (Virginia) and with that you don’t get as many transition opportunities and you don’t get the rebound numbers we want to get,” Dixon said. “We did not get the stops that we needed to get at the end of the game. It was guarding penetration that was a big problem, I was surprised they beat us off the dribble as much as they did.” 

“When we got stops at their end, it was guarding penetration and keeping them in front, making them take tough shots. That is what we have got to do.” 

In Pitt’s 13 wins since conference play began Jan 4., the opponent has managed to shoot higher than 40 percent from the field only five times.

If Pitt is going to grind teams out in similar fashion to Virginia, the Panthers have to do all the grunt work to make their opponent fight for a basket.

In every loss since conference play began, Pitt’s number of free-throw misses is greater than or equal to the margin of defeat.

This stat is a little bit tougher to decipher, but it says one thing: Pitt needs to improve at the foul line.

Here is the proof: 

Pitt loses by five to Syracuse, misses 10 free throws

Pitt loses by three to Virginia and misses eight free throws

Pitt drops a game to Florida State at home, one it was expected to win, and misses 10 free throws.

The list goes on.

“We don’t step up to the line thinking we are going to miss our free throws,” junior guard Cameron Wright said. “We definitely will be working on our free throws this week and just have to understand that it is the little things that count.”

Free throws are free throws. You can always look back at them and ask, “What if?” But, to a certain extent, you have to expect better from Pitt. The Panthers must take advantage of these free opportunities in order to win close games.

In every Pitt victory, the team had at least three players in double figures and on five occasions, four players have finished the game with at least 10 points.

Patterson will score his points, and usually Zanna reaches double figures, too. But it is up to the secondary scorers to get Pitt over the hump. The trio of freshman — Mike Young, Jamel Artis and Josh Newkirk — have each played a significant role at different points in the season in terms of taking on the scoring load.

If the team can get the ball in Patterson’s hands, his ability to both score and create opportunities with his passing will be a difference maker, especially for Newkirk, who has played in an expanded role since redshirt sophomore Durand Johnson tore his ACL in January.

 “I am looking to be more aggressive in the open court,” Newkirk said. “I excel out in the open court and me pushing the ball creates opportunities for myself and others to score and I am going to continue to do that.”

This Pitt team has the tools in place to be a successful one. The Panthers have taken the best teams in the conference and nation to the final possession of games on multiple occasions. 

They have also been in top form in the last week led by a pair of seniors who seem ready to take a Pitt team over the hump.

Either way, it only seems fitting with this team will play its first, and potentially second game in Orlando, Fla.

It’s time for a wild ride.