Pitt defense must improve to ensure consistent success


Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

Twenty games into Pitt men’s basketball’s 2015-2016 campaign, and one thing is abundantly clear: the team will have to win games with offense.

The Panthers are a weak defensive team right now, surrendering open shots and points in the paint too frequently, allowing their opponents to consistently shoot in the high 40s and low 50s from the field. It’s something they will have to fix — quickly — if they want any semblance of a chance at a postseason run.

A disappointing road loss in Greenville, South Carolina, to Clemson Wednesday evening was one of many poor defensive performances this season, as Pitt fell to the Tigers 73-60.

Clemson shot 47.1 percent on the evening, compared to just 38.2 percent for Pitt.

“We had leads early in the first half, so it’s not like we weren’t ready to play,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said after the game. “[Clemson] just made runs in the second part of the first half, but simply put, we’re not defending well enough.”

Unlike in past seasons, Pitt can’t seem to pull out wins with defensive struggles; it has to finish on top with its offense. And when that offense isn’t scoring at an efficient clip, Pitt is usually in trouble.

The Panthers are 10-0 on the year when they shoot 50 percent or better from the field, but just 6-4 when they shoot south of 50 percent. Simply put, in a conference as good as the ACC, the team can’t expect to make half of its shots every contest.

Dixon has tried to improve Pitt’s defense since the start of the season, and he is frustrated with the lack of progress.

“It just comes down to we’re not where we need to be when we’re not making shots,” Dixon said. “And I’ve been saying that since October.”

With a starting lineup that includes three players who have been in the program for three or more years, one would expect some improvement on defense.

The Panthers have not held a single opponent to under 40 percent shooting since hosting Maryland-Eastern Shore on Jan. 2. Since then, they’ve allowed opponents to shoot 48.5, 54.2, 41.2, 46.9, 48.3, 53.7 and 47.1 percent.

They pulled a win against Florida State despite being vastly outshot by the Seminoles last week, 53.7 percent to 39.3 percent, but some late unforced turnovers by Florida State were crucial in securing that win.

Dixon said it’s frustrating when his team’s offense isn’t clicking, particularly when it’s paired with the deficiencies in other areas.

“The guys we put out there play well normally, but when they don’t make shots, it’s going to be problematic,” Dixon said. “But then you have to have your defense and your rebounding be the difference maker, and that certainly wasn’t the case tonight.”

This doesn’t mean that Pitt isn’t capable of winning games via dynamic offensive performances. Juniors Michael Young and Jamel Artis rank sixth and 18th in the conference in points per game, averaging 17.3 and 15.7, respectively. With a deep bench that features offensive weapons like Sheldon Jeter, Chris Jones and Cameron Johnson, the Panthers have plenty of backup firepower.

But it’s games like Wednesday’s against Clemson where none of that will matter. Sometimes, the shots just won’t go through the net. And that’s when good teams rely on defense to win the game.

“I thought we had some good looks, they just weren’t knocking them down,” Dixon said. “We have to do other things, we have to get it done on the defensive end.”