March 28th, 2009: A day that will live in infamy in Pitt basketball history as Scottie Reynolds broke our hearts to deny Pitt a trip to the Final Four (where I still contend that Pitt would've won the national title had they gotten to Detroit). It was a time when you could say both of Pennsylvania's premier college basketball programs were at their peaks. Since then, neither squad has made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
The programs this season are now shells of their former shelves, though Pitt is starting to turn things around. Going into today's match-up, Pitt is heating up, having won their past three games, including a win over then No. 9/10 Georgetown and a tough road win over West Virginia. Villanova, on the other hand, has lost their past two against Louisville and Marquette, but played well against both.
Pitt and Nova are both 3-7 in the conference and could use a win to move up in the Big East standings. While Villanova has virtually no shot to secure an at-large berth at this point with a 10-12 record, Pitt still has a chance and with a re-energized team and fan base behind them, Pitt has the momentum.
The Panthers have won three straight over the Wildcats since that Elite Eight match-up and to get a fourth, Pitt has to do a few things.Offensively, Pitt needs to continue to be efficient on each possession. The Wildcats aren't a team likely to force turnovers, so that should definitely help. But throughout the game against West Virginia, Pitt had multiple unforced turnovers ... as they have all season, really. Those have to cut down. Villanova is also not a very good defensive team, allowing 72 points a game (which ranks 279th in Division I). Pitt should be able to score against the Wildcats, particularly from the perimeter where the Nova ranks14th in the Big East in three-point defense.
As is usually the case, rebounding is going to be a key stat. Pitt and Villanova are two of the top rebounding teams in the country, both ranking in the top 35 in rebounding margin. Overall, the Wildcats are even better ranking in the top ten with more than 40 total rebounds a game. Talib Zanna, Dante Taylor, and Nasir Robinson will likely need a big day on the boards for Pitt to win. Villanova has great front court players in Mouphtaou Yarou, Maurice Sutton, and JayVaughn Pinkston. They can make a living on the glass if Pitt doesn't box out. While Pitt is tops in offensive rebounding % in conference, Villanova is No. 1 in preventing offensive rebounds, so that will be a battle to watch as well.
On offense, Villanova is known for their guards. Their best player is arguably Maalik Wayns, who can be a good shooter and is almost automatic from the free throw line. Joining him in the back court are Dominic Cheek and James Bell, both of whom are good shooters. Pitt will have to have a good defensive effort to keep these three from getting hot from beyond the perimeter. The team doesn't shoot all that well converting only about 42% of their shots (29% from three-point range), but anything can happen in a one-game situation.
Pitt can also look to force turnovers. The Wildcats are turning the ball over in Big East games on an incredible 22% of their possessions, last in the conference.
Villanova, like Pitt, is also adept at getting offensive rebounds in their own right, as they rank 3rd in the Big East. Nova is going try and push the pace in this one (their adjusted tempo is 2nd in the Big East at around 73 possessions a game), but I think Pitt can do what they are known for - forcing teams to play at their own pace. That could be particularly true against this relatively young Villanova squad.
What Pitt absolutely cannot do is let Villanova get to the free throw line a lot. Jay Wright's team is filled with good free throw shooters and of their main contributors, only two are making less than 70% from the line. Villanova will try to get to the line frequently as their points from the line account for approximately 25% of their points ... most in the Big East.
Overall though, Villanova isn't a good shooting team and I think Pitt takes advantage. If Tray Woodall continues to be the scorer he was against Providence and West Virginia, Pitt should win. Or at the very least, another player steps up and Woodall just piles absurd numbers of assists, a la Georgetown. Ashton Gibbs will get his 15 or so points and I think Nasir Robinson will have a good outing as well. Ken Pomeroy is predicting a five-point Pitt win. I'm thinking something like that as well - Pitt wins 70-63.