Men’s Basketball: Upstart Virginia poses difficult defensive test for Pitt


The Pitt men’s basketball team might not focus on a single offensive player in its game against Virginia, the only team in the chase for the ACC regular-season title without an obvious superstar. But the Panthers are sure to focus on a plan to work around a stingy Cavaliers’ team defense.

The second-place Cavaliers have only two players averaging double figures in scoring. Redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon leads Virginia at 11.6 points per game but is still 30th in the conference in scoring. Senior forward Joe Harris chips in with 11.5 points per game, but has underperformed this season after being selected to the preseason All-ACC Team. And not only do the Cavaliers lack a go-to scorer, but Virginia ranks 13th out of 15 ACC teams in scoring at 67 points per game.

Excluding a 69-65 loss at Duke, the Cavaliers have played an easy ACC schedule so far, but that’s not the reason behind their early success.

They own the No. 1 scoring defense in the country, allowing a mere 56 points per game.

In the past, several coaches have beaten the Panthers by disrupting the natural flow of Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon’s style of play. The most notable example of this came in 2011, when Notre Dame coach Mike Brey used his “burn” offense to grind out the Panthers.

Brey exposed a flaw in Dixon’s defensive system — help-side defense — and for the remainder of the season, various coaches used Brey’s tactic to stab at the Panthers.

On Monday, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was able to push Pitt’s National Player of the Year candidate, redshirt senior forward Lamar Patterson, away from his comfort zone.

Krzyzewski assigned 6-foot-8 forward Rodney Hood to guard Patterson. Hood denied Patterson the ball within 23 feet of the basket, and Patterson’s 14 points came mostly in the open court. Patterson seldom received a pass inside shooting range, and he was trapped at times around the perimeter, where the bulk of Patterson’s five turnovers occurred.

After the game, Krzyzewski credited Hood for brilliant defense.

“Thank goodness we have a player of Rodney’s caliber to guard him,” Krzyzewski said.

When Pitt (18-3, 6-2 ACC) and Virginia (16-5, 7-1 ACC) face each other at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at the Petersen Events Center, Pitt fans could discover that the Cavaliers have a handful of players of the same defensive caliber as Hood.

Following the Cavaliers’ 68-53 win at Notre Dame Tuesday, fifth-year Virginia coach Tony Bennett will have had five days to study different modes of defensive attack for Patterson.

As for Dixon, he said the Panthers will look for different ways to free Patterson from defenders.

“We’ve got to do a better job in getting him in position,” Dixon said. “And that falls on me.”

On Tuesday, Bennett’s team showed everyone that it is capable of disrupting the intended play of opposing teams’ superstars. The Cavaliers held Notre Dame’s leading scorer, Garrick Sherman, to just eight points.

“The majority of the time, we were in the right positions and made Sherman see the trap coming, and we pulled it off,” Bennett said of his team’s defensive effort after Virginia’s game on Tuesday.

Virginia has now won four straight games, and Brogden has emerged as one of the most complete players in the league.

Brogden has been Virginia’s leading scorer in each of its past three games, checking in with 16, 18 and 16 points — he’s set some personal highs, as well.

The 6-foot-5 sharpshooter, who is shooting 39 percent from 3-point range, had a career high in steals (5), and matched career highs in rebounds (7) and assists (6) on Tuesday, helping the Cavaliers achieve their best start in ACC play since the 1982-1983 season.

For the first time in school history, the margin of victory in each of the Cavaliers’ first seven ACC wins is at least 10 points.

This is ideal redemption for the Cavaliers, whose case for an NCAA Tournament bid will continue to be marred by losses to Green Bay and Tennessee, among others.

Include Brey among the believers in the Cavaliers’ ability heading into their matchup against the Panthers.

“[Virginia] might be the most confident team in the league,” Brey said in his press conference.