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'Pete' Points: to Screen, or Not to Screen

The Pittsburgh Panthers (20-4, 8-3) aren't using on-ball and off-screens as effectively as they could be. Their two recent losses have shown that Pitt needs to adjust to how teams are starting to defend senior forward Lamar Patterson in those situations.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Setting and using screens is a fundamental part of basketball. One that I think a majority of people who watch the game realize, but at times, goes largely unnoticed. Right now, it’s hard to notice when the Pittsburgh Panthers set and use a screen effectively. Sometimes they don’t set enough and/or don’t have a plan when they do.

For starters, senior forward Lamar Patterson isn’t the world-beater that some Pitt fans believe. He is a very good player with a very high basketball IQ, which is why he is so dangerous in screen-and-roll situations. But, against the Duke Blue Devils and Virginia Cavailers, we saw two different defenses use two different tactics to take Patterson out of his element.

Duke is really good at denying players the ball. After their loss, Patterson attributed his struggles to the fact that the Blue Devils, particularly sophomore guard Rodney Hood, denied him the ball so often. Duke is somewhat unique in that they play a hybrid up-the-line/on-the-line man-to-man defense in a closed stance.

Their feet stay pointed towards their check, yet, their able to position their hands in order to maintain sight of the ball. Hood is clearly more athletic than Patterson, and his length prevented Lamar from beating him off the dribble or turning the corner during on-ball screen situations.

Still, early in the game the team had success in pick-and-roll situations. It didn’t help that senior forward Talib Zanna was unable to finish around the rim in those situations. His defender probably stopped caring (an exaggeration) when Zanna rolled towards the basket after awhile.

However, when that didn’t work, I think the Panthers could have done a better job implementing off-ball screens, especially since the Blue Devils were in a closed stance. In general, Pitt doesn’t use a lot of off-ball screens (that are effective).  Unless you consider Patterson or junior guard Cameron Wright running from the wing to the baseline past the two post players and curling into nowhere an off-ball screen – I don’t.

Against Virginia, the Panthers were presented with a different puzzle to solve in screen-and-roll situations. The on-ball defender on Patterson often denied Lamar's ability to use of the screen, while the off-ball defender switched into a defensive stance against Patterson - a form of ICE. Normally, the off-ball defender sags into the paint, and the defense is content giving up a 15-foot jumper by the screener.

However, Patterson’s lack of foot speed allowed the off-ball defender to stay close to him, because he wasn't able to take him off the dribble. Also, the most logical screener in that situation would have been freshman forward Jamel Artis. But, Artis feinted more screens than he actually set against the Cavaliers.

I especially disliked when Artis ran out towards Patterson like he was going to set an outside screen. Only he would flare out to the wing instead of setting a screen. Nothing ever positive resulted from that action, and since no one moved as that was going on, I don't think it was designed to free someone off the ball.

Conversely, Virginia ran some gorgeous offensive sets, like on the game-winning shot, which I would love to elaborate on…only I don’t write for Streaking the Lawn.

Basically, teams don’t want to allow Patterson to use the screen-and-roll. He is an elite passer that makes some of his best decisions when the defense is forced to collapse on him. When teams are allowed to play the passing lanes or are willing to yield mid-range jumpers, Patterson’s elite skill is neutralized.

It doesn’t help that, at times, it seems like Pitt doesn’t time their screens very well. Wright goes before the screen is set for him more than a handful of times a game. Out of frustration, Patterson has done the same thing in the two recent losses.

Only sophomore point guard James Robinson rubs close enough to the screen that his defender actually gets picked. The fact that none of the frontcourt players can finish at the rim consistently when they roll towards the basket and receive a pass doesn’t help. Only Artis is reliable in flare situations, although, fellow freshman forward Michael Young is improving.

Overall, the last two weeks have really shed light on the fact that the Panthers are a good team, but it’s a stretch to say they're a top-20 team. It’s been well documented that they haven’t beaten a team in the top-50 of the RPI, with very few chances remaining. With teams starting to figure out how to play Patterson more effectively, if Pitt can’t start doing the little things right, like setting screens, I am not sure they’ll get that signature win anytime soon.

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