We are less than a week away from the most anticipated game at the 'Pete' this year, as the Duke Blue Devils (14-4) will be in town to face the Pittsburgh Panthers (16-2). Sam Vecenie, a contributor/writer for Fear the Sword (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Land-Grant Holy Land (Ohio State), agreed to answer some questions I had about the upcoming showdown.
Sam is currently a graduate student at CMU, and watches an inordinate amount of college hoops, as well as the NBA. He's seen Duke and Pitt play several times already this year, and has been kind enough to provide some objective third-party analysis. Please follow Sam on Twitter for a lot of insightful stuff about college hoops as well as the NBA.
Q: Sam thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. When we chatted recently on Twitter, you said that you had to an opportunity to see the Panthers play last month when you were in Pittsburgh. What are your thoughts about their season thus far?
I've been pretty impressed with Pitt this year, although that always tends to be the case early in the season. They're one of three teams (along with Syracuse and Arizona) that are currently ranked in the top-21 of both Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offense and defense rankings (as of 1/15/14), and that includes the abomination that was the Cincinnati game.
Lamar Patterson seems to have taken that next step towards becoming a go-to guy, and James Robinson is still a really steady, young lead guard. Mostly though, I'm impressed by their ability to not turn the ball over, to force turnovers via steals, and to get extra opportunities on the offensive glass.
Q: Give me a few things that you'd like to see Pitt do more of and less of as a team.
Hmm, I'm not sure there is anything they need to do more or less of necessarily; I think they just need to prove that they can keep doing the same things that they have been against higher level competition. The best team they've faced this year outside of Cincinnati is probably NC State, who isn't an NCAA Tournament level team.
They've beaten a lot of the bottom feeders of big conferences - Texas Tech, Maryland, and Penn State. If they can translate that success into beating higher-level opponents, then they’ll probably be a top-3 ACC team in what has been a down year for the conference this season.
Q: Which players have stood out the most to you, and what's your general assessment of their strengths and weaknesses?
I kind of answered this earlier; both of their turnover rates are awesome. Robinson is pretty much the antithesis of what Carl Krauser was, and I mean that in the best of ways. He's one of those guys that really seems to never lose his poise or control over the game. But on top of that, they're forcing turnovers on nearly 20% of their defensive possessions.
Patterson has been the revelation for me. A lot of guys tend to lose some of their efficiency whenever their usage goes up, but Patterson has somehow increased his across the board. If Jabari Parker didn't exist, there may not be an argument against Patterson for ACC Player of the Year. He's 2nd in the conference in PER, 3rd in TS%, 3rd in AST%, and averaging 23 points and 6.3 rebounds per 40. Those are All-American numbers, let alone All-ACC numbers.
Q: Moving on to the game against Duke; a lot of our readers have asked me how the Panthers will defend freshman sensation Jabari Parker. What are some of Jabari's strengths and weaknesses, and if you were head coach Jamie Dixon, how would you defend him?
All of the things you've heard about how good Jabari Parker is are true. He and Doug McDermott are the two best scorers in the country, and I don't think anyone else is particularly close. Parker is one of those scorers who can beat you in basically any way that you ask him. He can spot up from beyond the arc, he can get the ball in the post and create a shot that way, and he can run in transition with anyone.
More than anything else, he excels in the triple threat, where he looks an awful lot like a young Carmelo Anthony, even down to the jab-step he uses to get defenders off-balance. At 6’9 and with a high release point, he can shoot over anyone. He has the ball-handling ability to blow by 3s that guard him, and he can stop-and-pop from mid-range.
Having said all of that, the times where both he and Duke have struggled this season, have come against fundamentally sound defensive opponents. Clemson gave them fits by denying him the ball, and by bringing multiple defenders over to him.
If I were Dixon, I'd probably put Michael Young on him first, and double him any time he touches the ball on the block. Additionally, I’d be sure to rotate defenders that are ready to help in the paint if he gets to the rim. Containing him is the most important thing a defense needs to do...
Q: Jabari is certainly the headliner, and sophomore Rodney Hood is thought of as a potential lottery pick as well. Give me one or two other players that Pitt needs to worry about and why.
...because outside of he and Hood, Duke really doesn't have much. Rasheed Sulaimon is extremely talented, but has taken a step back this season because he’s been in Mike Krzyzewski's dog house. They have no interior presence at all, to the point where Parker is relegated to playing the 5 sometimes.
Quinn Cook plays a ton of minutes at point guard, but struggles unless he is making outside shots. Hood and Parker might be the best combination of players in the country, but they can't do it themselves, which is why Duke has lost four games.
Q: Who do you see winning the game and why?
Duke has been such a dumpster fire on the road this season that I have refused to pick them to win away from Cameron. It's probably a 50-50 game, but I'll go with the Panthers to win a game decided in the last 90 seconds.
Q: How far do you think the Panthers will go this season (assuming they make the NCAA Tournament)?
This year is so wide open that I can't even begin to guess. I think this Pitt team's ceiling is probably the Elite Eight and their floor is the Round of 64. I don't think they have Final Four talent, but they're definitely a tournament team that could win a game or two in the right matchup.
Q: Do you think seniors Lamar Patterson or Talib Zanna can make an NBA roster next season?
Patterson definitely could get drafted, although the small forward depth in this class is probably going to hurt him, along with his size. He needs to measure out at a minimum of 6'5, maybe 6'6. Regardless, he'll be playing professionally and probably succeeding somewhere next season, be it in the D-League or in Europe. His decision-making skills, role-playing personality, and three-point shot make him an excellent candidate to be a European star.
As far as Zanna is concerned, I feel less confident. He's always been a guy that strikes me as someone who destroys lesser competition and struggles against good competition. Dwight Powell of Stanford definitely got the better of their matchup earlier this season, as did Justin Jackson of Cincinnati (although I prefer to wish that game just never happened). He's certainly improved this season, but I'm not sure he's an NBA guy. It will depend on his performances in pre-draft camps such as Portsmouth, and with individual teams.