First, Pitt will play Syracuse in the final game of the regular season at Heinz Field. That game will kickoff at noon on ESPN2. Then, at 5:15 on ESPN, Pitt will be in Knoxville, Tennessee as part of the Big East/SEC Challenge to take on the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols, as you know, beat the Panthers as part of the Big East/SEC Invitational last season in a "neutral-site" game at the Consol Energy Center. So what has changed in a year's time?
There was that whole Bruce Pearl scandal where it cost Pearl his job. To make matters worse, the NCAA slapped him with a 3 year show-cause penalty. The Vols, on the other hand, after beating Pitt, went on to lose to powerhouses Oakland, Charlotte, and USC, all in consecutive games and somehow made their way into the NCAA Tournament where they got blown out by Michigan in the first round. Pearl was eventually replaced by former Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin, who has led the Vols to a 3-3 record and a 7th place finish at the Maui Invitational. Don't let that 7th place finish fool you though. Tennessee played a very tough game against then-#8 Memphis, losing by 2 in double overtime. In their most recent game, they went to Oakland and lost by 8 in a game where they never had the lead (some of that may be due to the fact that they had just played in Maui).
Gone from this team is Scotty Hopson who absolutely torched the Panthers last season. This year's star seems to be forward Jeronne Maymon, who is averaging 13 points and 9 rebounds a game. I watched the Tennessee-Memphis game and came away very impressed with Maymon. He is a real banger down low and will fight for every rebound. Pitt will have to focus extra effort on boxing him out when going for rebounds. The other man in the frontcourt will be C Kenny Hall, who also does a solid job rebounding the ball. For subs, expect former Panther Dwight Miller to see some time on the court as well as Renaldo Woodridge. Yemi Makanjuola will also see time at center.
The backcourt is where Pitt can get beaten, especially since Tray Woodall is out for the game. 3 of Tennessee's top 4 scorers make up the starting backcourt in Trae Golden, Jordan McRae, and Cameron Tatum, all of which are very good at shooting the ball, especially McRae and Tatum who are shooting 50% from the perimeter in 6 games. Pitt has shown that they can let opposing teams get hot from the field (see the Rider, Long Beach State, and La Salle games) and against a good group of shooters in a hostile environment, Pitt cannot allow the Vols to get off to a good start shooting the ball.
Going back to last season, how did the Vols hurt Pitt? Other than letting Scotty Hopson dominate the game and seemingly score at will, free throws killed Pitt. The Panthers went 25-42 from the line. First, getting to the line 42 times is absurd, but missing 17 of them in a game decided by a few possessions hurt the Panthers. They need to do a better job rebounding as Tennessee was one of the few teams that out-rebounded Pitt last season. Fouls also hurt the Panthers as Pitt was whistled 24 times (yet somehow, none of those were on Gary).
The injury to Woodall hurts this team a lot. But, just like last season when Pitt overcame Ashton's injury to win 2 consecutive tough road wins at West Virginia and at Villanova, Pitt can overcome this injury as well. Obviously, Pitt needs to focus on cutting down the number of turnovers and play disciplined basketball. Down low, Khem and Dante need to focus on keeping Maymon away from the hoop with good boxing out and really secure the ball. When they have the ball under the hoop, really try to draw the fall. These refs aren't Big East refs, meaning they're likely to be less lenient on physical play under the basket. Getting Maymon or Hall into foul trouble early on will go a long way.