Talib Zanna's improvement is one reason Pitt's thinking NCAA's this season - Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Pitt has improved much from a year ago, but there are still things to improve upon in Big East play.
No, it's not the official halfway point in the schedule. The non-conference slate isn't even over yet. But let's be real - we're not going to learn much more about this team against Kennesaw State that we already know 12 games into the season.
So what do we know about this team? They're great at rebounding, as is customary with a Pitt basketball team under Jamie Dixon. Pitt is 3rd in the Big East in rebounding margin, outrebounding their opponents by about 10 a game. They're also efficient offensively, averaging 1.27 points per possession (best in the nation). They share the ball well, averaging just under 20 assists per game, ranking second in the nation. All things that we've grown to expect with Jamie Dixon-coached teams.
But what's changed from last season's anomaly is turnovers. The Panthers are averaging about nine a game when last season, they couldn't stop turning the ball over. Now, with an actual point guard in place, the Panthers are holding onto the ball far more, which is leading to some of the blowout results we've seen this season. The defense has improved dramatically, although that may be a product of the quality of teams Pitt has played. But Dixon committed to getting this Pitt team to play better defense in the offseason and it has shown.
Individually, James Robinson is as advertised. As a freshman starter, already a rare accomplishment for a Pitt team, he is near the top nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.6. He's not the best scorer, but he makes up for it in his point guard abilities and his defense. He's off to a great start and with another year of practice to improve his offense, he's got a promising future. As for the other freshman starter, Steven Adams has had a typical season for a first-year player. His defense is miles ahead of his offense and he has shown flashes of dominance and why he was such a highly regarded prospect. But he also tends to disappear in games and against talented big men and he has troubling matching up against them (see the Michigan game). Still, he has tremendous potential and as a 7 footer, an above-average conference season pretty much guarantees him to be a first round NBA draft pick. If Pitt gets another season out of him, he stands a much better chance to get drafted early.
As for the returning players, has anyone been a bigger surprise than Talib Zanna? He is my choice for midseason Most Outstanding Player. Last season, he averaged only six points/game, but this season, he's doubled that and has been a force on the glass. In a way, you could compare this boost to the jump in production that Sam Young had in between his sophomore and junior seasons. Now, this isn't to say that Zanna is going to work his way into a draft pick this season, or even next season. But he's put in the work for the past few years and it's showing.
The award for MVP goes to Tray Woodall and it's not even close. We all saw what a mess offensively Pitt was last season when he was injured. With him healthy, this Pitt team runs much better. His field goal percentage is up from last season (51% vs. 43%) and he's turning the ball over less (1.7 vs. 3.2). He's been the floor leader that Pitt desperately needed last season.
Lamar Patterson is the least talked about amongst the starters, but he too has improved over the course of the offseason and even during the regular season thus far, scoring in double figures for the past eight games after scoring just 10 points combined in the first four contests. His defense has also improved. If he can continue to score at the rate he's been scoring over the past month, Pitt is going to win a lot of Big East games.
The bench is the deepest it's been since Dixon was hired in my opinion. Pitt has 10 guys averaging more than 10 minutes a game through 12 games this season and that doesn't really figure to change much come Big East play. Off the bench, Cam Wright has really improved from his redshirt freshman season. He wasn't that great on either end of the floor a year ago, but like Zanna, has vastly improved his offense and defense this season. He isn't averaging many more points this season, but he's taking much better shots and scoring on over 50% of his shots. J.J. Moore continues to do his best Gilbert Brown impression, taking over a game offensively one game and then struggling the next. But like Brown, if he is on fire, he's scoring 20 points and there will be dunks. Lots and lots of dunks.
Dante Taylor has quietly turned into a quality bench player and become the kind of player that we all wanted him to be. His offensive production hasn't changed much, but on defense is where the change is taking place. He just looks much more comfortable inside on defense. The talented transfer Trey Zeigler has been what we expected him to be - a capable scorer off the bench. He wasn't going to average 15-16 points/game like he did at Central Michigan, but if he can continue to contribute 6-8 points a game, he'll continue to be a valuable addition. Durand Johnson rounds out the bench players and is another good defender off the bench. He lacks a scoring touch thus far, but that's partially due to the limited minutes he plays.
Even with all of the good that Pitt has shown over 12 games, there's still plenty to work on. FIrst and foremost, Pitt has to get out to better starts in the first half. Trailing big to Oakland, tight first halves against several opponents, Pitt cannot (I repeat cannot) expect to beat the upper tier of Big East teams if they are sluggish in the first 15+ minutes of the game. As always, Pitt has to work on free throw shooting, although they are doing better than the Elite Eight team a few years ago did (70% vs. 67.6%). But they don't have a guaranteed shooter like they did the past few seasons with Ashton Gibbs and in big games down the road, it could cost them.
Ultimately, if I had to assign a grade, it's incomplete because Pitt hasn't been really tested throughout the non-conference slate. Their one big test against Michigan ended in a loss and while they showed tremendous heart against Oakland, no one is going to come away impressed with the list of teams Pitt has beaten. But even so, everything I've seen from this Pitt team has me thinking that this team can reach the NCAAs and likely into the Round of 32.