9:10 pm, Saturday. Pepsi Center, Denver. CBS.
Pittsburgh comes in at 27-9 on the season. They finished 10-8 in Big East regular season play, but won the conference tournament championship, beating Cincinnatti, Louisville, Marquette, and Georgetown along the way. That’s an impressive four-game sweep. Their best win on the season was a 65-64 OT win over Duke in New York. All in all, their record looks pretty solid, with the only obvious bad losses being a 25-point loss to Dayton on the road and a home game they dropped to Rutgers.
Pittsburgh’s statistical strengths lie on the offensive end of the court. They rank 8th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency–vs. just 58th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Their offensive prowess can be summed up concisely: They take a lot of shots. They don’t turn the ball over (TO% of 18.1%; 29th in the nation) and they grab a lot of offensive rebounds (off reb% of 39.7%; 10th in the nation). They excel on the offensive glass despite fielding a pretty short lineup. None of their regulars is taller than 6’8″ and they rank just 234rd in the nation in kenpom’s average-minutes-weighted-height stat.
6’7″ freshman DeJuan Blair leads the way on the offensive glass. He averages 9.2 rebounds/game and ranks 6th in the nation with an offensive rebounding % of 16.8%.
Pittsburgh would be absolutely unstoppable on offense if not for mediocre shooting stats. Their effective FG% of 51.1% ranks just 118th in the nation and their free throw rate 23.8% is only 217th best in the country. Leading scorer Sam Young (18.1 points/game) is also their most efficient scorer. The 6’6″ junior sported shooting percentages of .539/.393/.681 (2pt/3pt/FT) going into the NCAA tournament.
Point guard Levance Field, a 5’10” junior, had been a pretty inefficient scorer this season (3pt% of .258), but he hit 4 of 7 three-pointers and scored 23 points in Pitt’s first-round win over Oral Roberts.
Pitt’s defensive resume is fairly mediocre. Their lack of height apparently hurts them more on the defensive glass. They rank just 185th in the nation in defensive rebounding (opponent’s off reb% = 33.1%). Their defensive has tightened up, though, in postseason play. They’ve held four of their last five opponents to an effective FG% below 50%.
I’m going to take the easy path in terms of the Spartans Weblog Key to the Game and say it’s rebounding. Both teams are very good on the offensive glass but far from dominant on the defensive end. If either team can control the rebounds on the defensive end, that could be enough to swing the game toward them. Marquise Gray’s sprained toe could hurt here. For all his struggles, the one thing he can do is pull down defensive rebounds (def reb% = 21.8%).
- The big guys have to stay out of foul trouble against the smaller, but physical, Pitt frontcourt players. This is not a game you want to bring Ibok or Herzog into. And if Gray plays, the toe injury probably exacerbates his already-suspect defense.
- Suton needs to use his height to create some low post baskets. We know he has the ability to score over people with a variety of low post moves. Suton’s scored exactly 6 points in his last four games, after having scored in double digits in 4 of the previous 5 games. He needs more touches. He needs to be assertive in asking for the ball and the guards need to get it to him.
- I’d mention that Morgan needs to use his size and athleticism to score against smaller defenders, but he played better last game when I said we shouldn’t count on him. So let’s stick with that.
- Neitzel needs to keep shooting. He’d made 20 of 46 three-pointers (.435) in the 5 games prior to the 1-8 performance from beyond the arc on Thursday.
- Find a way to stop Sam Young. Apparently, Suton will guard him to start (see Rexrode link below). That’s a tough match-up. Morgan becomes the more likely defender as the game goes on, but that invites foul trouble given Morgan’s history. You wonder if Izzo might use Walton to mix things up at some point.
Dave Dye notes Izzo’s career record of 11-2 in the second game of NCAA tournament weekends. One of those two losses was to #1 seed North Carolina in the second round last year. Izzo is the master of creating and implementing game plans on a short turnaround.
Joe Rexrode has the defensive match-ups for tomorrow night. MSU will have a lot more size on the floor to start the game, creating mismatches on both ends of the floor.
Check out Pitt Blather for a perspective from Panther land.
Kenpom predicts MSU to win 69-67 in 64 possessions. This one shapes up to be a physical battle. Positive spin: MSU should be prepared, having played 20 games in the most physical conference in the land. Negative spin: They lost seven of those 20 games, often struggling when games became physical half-court battles.
If we can find a way to stop Young, I think we can find enough way to score now that our turnover problems are under control (TO% below 20% in 8 of the last 9 games). I have a feeling we’ll all be spending a pretty tense two hours in front of the TV tomorrow night. But I’m hopeful our Spartans will bring a healthy dose of vim to this one.