Ahead of Maryland and Pitt's second meeting of the season, I wrote Jesse Irwin, who covers the Panthers for SB Nation's Cardiac Hill and handles radio and television duties at various local outlets. In an email conversation over the past week, we talked in-depth about the Terps, Panthers and their two meetings in 2014. Our exchange is published below:
TT: For Maryland and Pitt, it's long time-no-see. When the Terps visited the Peterson Events Center on Jan. 6, they hung around in a tough basketball environment for the first 20 minutes, even holding the upper hand for the first quarter or so of the game. Things went downhill really quickly, though, and Maryland's early lead turned to a six-point halftime deficit and eventually a "wow, how did that happen?" 20-point drubbing.
As you know, Pitt basketball was my primary NCAA rooting interest before I came to College Park, so it wasn't exactly surprising to see a Jamie Dixon team pull away from a middling conference opponent at the Pete. That happened in the Big East roughly, you know, every game. But what struck me about Pitt's win against Maryland was that virtually every shot Pitt took was a good one, and the Panthers' ball movement was superb. Maryland native James Robinson and Josh Newkirk both ran the point effectively, and Pitt's shooters made Maryland's group of usually solid perimeter defenders look very, very bad. Pitt shot 53 percent from the field that night, and it wasn't a coincidence.
The Terps shot a sadly not-out-of-character 36 percent and looked like a team with no plan other than to chuck threes, toss occasional alley-oops and play like five one-man units. Dixon's teams have always been good sharers, but I'm thinking this year's group gets more out of the sum of its parts than any Pitt team in a while. We know they can move and pass, but do the Panthers have the talent to win the ACC?
JI: Before I get into Pitt, I've gotta say that your guy Smotrycz was bringing some serious precipitation for the first ten minutes of their last meeting with the Panthers. I was sitting in studio at the time, and just when I started thinking we were set defensively by keeping Seth Allen quiet, Smotrycz drained his first three shots from beyond the arch (luckily for Pitt, he wouldn't hit another one until 20+ minutes later). So kudos to the Terps for not only having a higher 3pt % than Pitt right now, but for giving them a little bit of a run for their money early on.
To answer your question: Abso-freakin-lutely. You look at this Panthers roster and you see a handful of guys that can put up fantastic numbers in almost any column you pick. Sophomore PG James Robinson has an assist-turnover ratio of 9.3 (next highest in the ACC is 4.1), big guy Talib Zanna has 100 points in the year 2014, and potential ACC POTY candidate Lamar Patterson is leading the team in both points (17.4) and assists (4.6). The only reason Jamie Dixon's team isn't undefeated is one word – consistency. You see each Panther's averages, and those numbers aren't always showing up every night. Lamar only had 11 points in the Jimmy V Classic (Pitt's first loss) and 12 points against Georgia Tech. Talib might be playing strong hoops against ACC opponents, but those numbers weren't an everyday thing earlier in the season. James may be averaging 4.3 assists-per-game, but that figure can fluctuate from game to game.
But the beauty of this squad (and the first half of this schedule) is that consistency hasn't been needed to get a good majority of these games. When one dude isn't putting up his, another guy picks up the slack and makes up for it in one way or another. Lamar doesn't provide his PPG? Talib takes over and leads the way. James finishes with a goose egg in assists? Lamar provides five. Then, along with defensive specialist Cam Wright and freshman forward Mike Young, you've got a bench that's more than willing to hop off the pine and contribute. So it comes down to not the question of which team will show up, but more so which players will. When only certain guys perform, results may vary. But when this team is on the same page, they've got the potential to beat anybody in the country.
TT: I tend to agree that Pitt's got the potential to beat anybody in the country, but as you alluded to, they've had some consistency issues that led to a loss against Cincinnati and a "good" loss at Syracuse. The most likely outcome on Saturday, for me, is that the Terps hang around for a while on the strength of a good crowd (it's nearly a sellout for a weekend night game), but Pitt overpowers them in the second half like they did the last time. But let's say Maryland pulls it out and sends Pitt to a second-straight road loss: How would the Terps do it?
JI: Offensively, the Terps are gonna want to get ahead early. Maryland has an solid eFG% when they take that initial shot within the first 10 seconds of a possession (56.2% after an opp. basket), so utilize that number and act fast. That doesn't mean Layman and Smotrycz need to come out firing from Honolulu, but if they can get down the court and move quickly enough to keep the defense from getting set up, it's gonna cause some technical difficulties for Pitt. If Dixon goes with a zone, swift perimeter passing by Maryland might result in slow defensive rotation by the Panthers.
On the other end of the Comcast Center, shutting down Lamar Patterson is half the battle. But Turgeon's Terps are also gonna need to keep Jamie Dixon's Panthers from scoring off points in the paint. Pitt ranks second in the nation in points assisted at the rim, so Smotrycz (who I could’ve sworn was a guard), Mitchell, and Graham will really need to play big and keep Zanna from getting buckets the way he has in the ACC. Patterson & Co. are also one of the top teams in the country when it comes to 2-point jumpers, so regardless of whether Maryland runs their man-to-man or goes zone, they'll have to be up in Pitt's face for all 40 minutes. Guys like Cam Wright love that pull-up shot around the foul line, so it's definitely something College Park wants to watch out for. After all, these are just suggestions. Pitt's loss to Cincinnati was largely due to their inability to break the press, so that may be something you see Coach Turgeon try. But that was way back in 2013, so don't say I didn't warn you.
TT: You mentioned Lamar Patterson, and I think that's important. Patterson's only the latest in a lineage of Dixon's players who have improved a great deal over four or five years in Oakland. Think Brad Wanamaker, Aaron Gray, Gary McGhee, Gilbert Brown and the like. He's become a really good inside-out threat for Pitt, and I think he's got a reasonable case for ACC player of the year so far. In a sense, though, I still don't know what to make of him: Do you see him as a big shooting guard or a true small forward? If you're Maryland, do you stick Wells, Faust, or Jake Layman on him, or do you think Patterson's more easily defendable in a zone set?
JI: Sheesh. That's a question both the Oakland Zoo (Pitt's student section) and NBA scouts have been asking themselves. Looking at what he's done for the Panthers this season, you could make valid arguments for both. After watching him go for 22 points and grab eight boards against NC State? He's a small-forward. Sitting in awe as he trotted past the Cal-Poly Mustangs for a career-high 30? He's a shooting-guard. Seeing him drop at least six dimes in nine games this season? Heck, he's a point-guard. He contributes in so many departments, and while a major part of that roots back to pure skill, the result is enhanced by his incredible awareness, elusiveness, and remarkable knowledge of the game that has grown so much during his time at Pitt.
When you're looking to stop a player as versatile as Lamar, your best strategy honestly is to keep him from getting the ball in his hands, and to apply as much pressure as possible when he does. Give him enough room to work with and you're almost guaranteeing yourself some sort of posterization. So keep two hands in his face, maybe even three, but don't forget that he shares the ball the most for a reason. His buddies in the paint or on the wing are happy to help out with the baskets, therefore any kind of box-and-one may be the Maryland's best bet. Wright will take any opportunity to slyly sneak through the back door when the attention is on Lamar, so the Terps will try to hold down as much hardwood as they can without leaving too much space for #21.
TT: The Terps do have several good perimeter defenders who should be able to do decent work on him, but I'm sure he'll still get his. Maybe my bigger worry, though, is that while the Terps hit the boards well (28th in the nation in rebounds per game), they have almost nothing in the way of stout interior defenders. Talib Zanna crushed them earlier this month, and other teams' forwards and centers have managed to be effective against Maryland. Do you think Pitt has the interior talent to beat Maryland in the paint?
And can I take you for a prediction on the game's result?
JI: In short - without a doubt. Take a peek at Pitt's frontcourt numbers at the Petersen Events Center and you'll see why. But does that mean that skill will make the trip down with them? You can never be too sure. Zanna, along with Young and Artis have managed to supply the impetus in a handful of games this season. But there have also been a couple where they might've put up better numbers sitting in a lawn chair. So like I explained before, there's no question they can own the painted area. It's a matter of which version of those three makes an appearance, and based on the last six games, the odds are in Jamie Dixon's favor.
This one has the chance to be a closer game than last time because Maryland has a better idea of what to expect and Pitt is missing Durand Johnson, who scored 17 last time these two programs met. But if the Panthers get out there and pick up where they left off when the clock hit zero against Clemson, it'll cause serious some problems for Steve Blake's alma mater.
Prediction: 72-60, University of Pittsburgh.