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Pitt prepares for 3-point barrage in Eastern Washington

Sterling+Smith+takes+a+floater+shot.++Jeff+Ahearn+%7C+Assistant+Visual+Editor
Sterling Smith takes a floater shot.  Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

Sterling Smith takes a floater shot. Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

Sterling Smith takes a floater shot. Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

By Jeremy Tepper / Senior Staff Writer

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The Pitt men’s basketball team has earned its 6-1 record this season through its versatile and deep roster.

But that depth can only prepare the Panthers so much for their upcoming game against Eastern Washington (5-3). The Eagles implement a three-point heavy offense from top to bottom, having made 87 threes on the year, good for 16th in the country. That attack can hurt opponents because if the shooters hit a hot streak, it creates a difficult hole to escape. The Panthers escaped that situation against a similar offensive style in Duquesne by holding the Dukes to only seven 3-point baskets.

In preparation for Eastern Washington, Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon has found that his team’s imitation skills are limited.

“It’s interesting because sometimes these games concern you early on, but they help you too, because they give you a team that you probably can’t simulate in practice,” Dixon said.

The distinctive Eagles offense worries Dixon, because it relies on dribble drives and stretching and spreading the floor out to find open shots behind the arc. Teams in Pitt’s conference don’t run similar offenses, though Dixon said some ACC teams will occasionally implement the attack for brief stretches.

“They play a little different. [They] weave and spread it out and try to get some match-up situations,” Dixon said. “[They’re] not huge, but five guys are almost interchangeable. I’d say that’s the biggest thing that stands out about them.”

That spread style creates roster balance, as four players on Eastern Washington average at least 13 points per game.

Austin McBroom, a senior guard transfer from Saint Louis University, leads the team in scoring with 15.9 points per game, while also making 2.9 threes a game. Felix Von Hofe, the team’s second highest scorer at 14.9 points, leads the team with 3.3 threes per game.

Though the offense is predicated on 3-point shots, the nature of the scheme spreads the floor, freeing up space inside for forward Venky Jois, who averages 13.6 points on 72.4 percent shooting, which ranks sixth in the country.

With a spaced out floor, Pitt forward Rafael Maia recognizes the team may need to use help defense to contain Eastern Washington.

“We’ve got to be prepared for them to be able to play one and one and have some isolations, and just be prepared that at any point in time they can attack us,” Maia said.

Pitt’s defense will find containing isolations challenging because it’s struggled with consistency from game to game and possession to possession — the Panthers rank 69th in points allowed per game.

Though that standing is less than ideal for Dixon, defensive efficiency statistics adjusted for pace and opponent are even worse. According to the KenPom website, Pitt ranks 101st in defensive efficiency.

That’s a stark contrast to Pitt’s offense, which ranks high in both conventional and advanced statistics. Averaging a robust 87.4 points per game, the Panthers rank 10th in scoring nationally. They’ve also shot 49.9 percent from the field and averaged 22.1 assists a game, second in the nation.

Pitt’s assist to turnover ratio, 2.12, is tops in college basketball, and KenPom ranks the Panthers offensive efficiency 11th.

With the strong offensive play has also come a recent increase in shooting guard Sterling Smith’s efficiency. Since scoring just six total points in his first two games, the graduate transfer from Coppin State has averaged 9.2 points in his past five. The improved play correlates with increased comfort, Smith said.

“Chemistry is definitely playing a big part in that,” Smith said. “I’m getting more comfortable with my teammates. They know where to find me.”

Pitt’s offense is still starting to gel with a number of new players, including some underclassmen who are seeing more minutes. Though Maia, also a graduate transfer, said the team’s chemistry has developed, he noted the growing pains that come with a deep new team.

“Our team has a lot of depth, which I think is very good, but also it’s harder to be a team that plays together, since you have so many players. Every day in practice, you’re playing with different guys,” Maia said.

Regardless of the learning curve, the Pitt offense may continue to excel Friday against the Eagles’ defense, which ranks 314th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency.

The Panthers’ defense, though, will shape a game between two proficient offenses. In some ways, Smith said, results on both ends are interconnected.

“I think a lot of times our offense runs off our defense,” Smith said. “We play well on that end, you get better shots.”

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Pitt prepares for 3-point barrage in Eastern Washington