Kovacevic: Just call this offense Pistol Pitt
Jamie Dixon blurted out what might have been a Yogi Berra-ism for the ages a few days back when he described Pitt's passion for passing the basketball thusly: “Unselfishness breeds unselfishness, and vice versa.”
So if X breeds X, then it stands to reason, naturally, that X breeds X.
Couldn't help but tease the coach about that Thursday night at the Pete, where the No. 22 Panthers continued preparing for their toughest test of the still-young ACC slate at No. 2 Syracuse on Saturday.
“What I meant,” Dixon began clarifying through a broad grin, “is that unselfishness breeds unselfishness in the same way selfishness breeds selfishness. That's the vice versa. We've got a group of guys who know and trust each other and how we want to play. I couldn't be more proud of how unselfish we've been.”
No need for explanation, obviously. In fact, it's as grounded an explanation as any I've heard to explain not only how Pitt is 16-1, 4-0 in the ACC but also how it's found a way to address what should have been the Panthers' greatest shortcoming.
They can shoot.
Even though they really can't shoot.
OK, now it's my turn to explain: Although all concerned will confess there isn't much on the roster in the way of outside or mid-range shooting — “We're not going to hit a lot of Js,” Dixon bluntly put it — they're hitting on field goals at 48.8 percent, 18th in the nation. They've also hit 3-pointers at a decent 34.5 percent and free throws at a near-school record 73.2 percent.
Pitt has two dominant traits that make that happen, and I dare say those will present the best possible shot at the upset against Syracuse's famously stingy 2-3 zone:
1. They're ‘unselfish'
Where else to start?
The Panthers' average of 17.2 assists per game ranks ninth in the nation, third among teams in the AP Top 25. More impressive, they pass with care, with a 1.72 assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks fifth in the nation.
James Robinson, already among the NCAA's most sure-handed point guards as a sophomore, leads the way with a 5.3 assist-to-turnover ratio. As Talib Zanna put it, “JR makes us go.” But he's hardly alone, as Pitt's 81-74 carving of Georgia Tech on Tuesday powerfully demonstrated. The Panthers took it to Tech with an array of back-door passes and alley-oops that had pretty much everyone involved. Dixon and his staff counted that 18 of the 25 field goals came on layups. I went to the box score and counted an astounding 12 of those 18 being assisted.
A Pistol Pitt offense, if you will.
“We tell our guys to limit the other team to five layups a game, which is obviously pretty tough,” Dixon said. “But for us to get 18 ... yeah, we liked that.”
By passing extensively, Pitt churns the clock, works for better shots and, above all, keeps the opponent from tracking any one player such as top scorer Lamar Patterson.
“That's where it starts because our top two guys, Lamar and Talib, are as unselfish as anyone,” Robinson said. “They're the seniors. If they do it, everyone's got to do it.”
That goes for the other trait, as well.
2. They're ‘tough'
What Pitt lacks in pure shooting it more than makes up by outscratching and outclawing opponents. I could cite stats here, notably the 12.4 offensive rebounds per game despite not having a true big man. Or I could give examples such as Robinson's brash pursuit of his own 3-point miss against Georgia Tech in which he flat-out wanted the ball more than anyone, then rolled it in.
Instead, I'll offer these observations from the four ACC coaches they've beaten to date.
N.C. State's Mark Gottfried: “I hate to say this, but Pittsburgh was the tougher team.”
I happened to be walking in front of Gottfried in Raleigh, N.C., when he spat this out on his radio show, and it's a wonder I didn't get wet. The man sounded sick.
Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik: “Pitt was tougher on the boards. They had as many offensive rebounds as we had defensive rebounds.”
Maryland's Mark Turgeon: “When you drive on them, you're going to get bumped. They're going to reach in, and a lot of times they strip or hitch it.”
This one's the best, from Georgia Tech's Brian Gregory: “They play with great toughness. They share the ball well. They know exactly who they are, and they rarely take a bad shot. The guys know who's getting the shots, so they're always in good position to rebound. They took seven 3s the whole night. That's who they are.”
Give Dixon and staff the highest of marks for all this. Steven Adams' early exit forced major adjustments in how Pitt plays, and the coaches have found a way to instill a dynamic, versatile offense out of basically a slew of similar guard-forward types.
We'll hear what Jim Boeheim has to say soon enough.