Conference play begins Tuesday night as Pitt travels to South Bend to face recent thorn Notre Dame. But right now, Pitt is beginning the harder end of their schedule with a boatload of questions and not many answers.
We began the season wondering who would be a solid second scoring option to Ashton Gibbs. But now we end the non-conference portion of the schedule wondering if Ashton Gibbs can be a solid second scoring option to anyone. Since Tray went out with his injury, Gibbs' numbers have dropped. Since the injury, Ashton is shooting just under 30% from three-point range. Last season, he shot near 50%.
We also began the season wondering if this was the team that finally broke through the Final Four barrier. This is a young team, but arguably Jamie Dixon's most talented squad since taking over as head coach. Right now, I'm just hoping that Pitt makes the NCAA Tournament after ending the non-conference schedule without any real marquee wins and two surprise losses to a solid Long Beach State team and a less impressive Wagner team.
Another question at the season's onset was if Khem Birch would emerge as an outstanding freshman and become a talented and exciting immediate impact player like we see at programs such as Kentucky or North Carolina. Birch is now in Canada after he left the program. Could he return? Possibly. Should he return or allowed back on the team? I say no, but that's for another post.
But here we are. Pitt heads to Notre Dame Tuesday night to hopefully start conference play on a good note.If you had to pick one team to start conference play against, Notre Dame appears to be a solid pick. The Irish are not the same veteran team that came in to the Pete and won last season. This is a team that has gotten blown out by Gonzaga and Missouri while also posting losses to Maryland, Indiana, and Georgia.
The Irish will play a very similar style to Pitt. They're going to grind out possessions to the end of the shot clock to get high-percentage shots. When run properly, the burn offense, as patented by head coach Mike Brey, is effective. We've seen that the past three times the Panthers have played Notre Dame and all have been Pitt losses. On defense, the Irish are going to play a physical man defense and forces shooters to take poor shots. Despite having five losses, only Missouri shot better than 45% against the Irish
You could argue, however, that Notre Dame may not have lost as poorly to Gonzaga or Indiana or may have beaten Maryland had star Tim Abromaitis not gotten injured. A preseason All-Big East player, Abromaitis tore his ACL in practice after the Irish lost to Georgia and was lost for the season.
The Irish will start with a four-guard lineup featuring Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. Both are the only two starters averaging double figures in points. They both are shooting around 50% from three-point rane and are decent shooters from the charity stripe, hitting right around 80% of their free throws. The other two starters will likely be Scott Martin and Alex Dragicevich. Both aren't known as shooters and struggle at the free throw line, but are decent defenders. The final starter will be Luke Harangody look-alike Jack Cooley, who is the team's leading rebounder and a solid option in the middle of the paint.
Pitt will have to do a better job on defense against Notre Dame. The Panthers appeared lackadaisical against Wagner and it ultimately cost them. Hopefully, they've realized they can't sleep for 30+ minutes and still expect to win every game. Notre Dame is also a very efficient offensive team - Kenpom.com rates the Irish 49th in adjusted offensive efficiency. As such, they do a good job shooting the ball, hitting 45% from the field.
Travon Woodall is reportedly a game time decision in this one. If he comes back, Pitt obviously has a much better chance of winning. With or without him, though, Pitt is going to have to shoot the ball better than they did against Wagner and keep turnovers down. Luckily for the Panthers, Notre Dame is not forcing many turnovers on defense. Again, they're a near mirror image of Pitt. If Pitt can get a win on Tuesday, they stand a good chance to start 4-0 in the Big East. Their next games are home vs. Cincinnati (which will be the last game of the six-game suspension for Yancy Gates), at DePaul, and home vs. Rutgers.