Basketball season is here and Pitt couldn't have landed a much more difficult opponent than No. 9 Gonzaga.
Several factors make this a challenging matchup for Pitt. For one thing, Gonzaga is just flat out good. Not only good, but, well, tall. The Zags have four players listed at 6'10" or taller (two are legit seven-footers), while the Panthers top out at 6'9". Facing any team with even two players that tall would present a problem, let alone four. Another challenge for Pitt comes simply because this is the season opener. Most teams, including Pitt in the past, sort of ease their way into the season. To play a top ten team right off the bat is a difficult hurdle.
The Panthers roster also presents a unique challenge. As I wrote about in the season preview, this is a team that is improved over last year. Nevertheless, Pitt had a significant amount of roster turnovers in the offseason and with so many new faces, it will naturally take them a little time to adjust. The coaches, too, are also in somewhat of a learning stage, trying to figure out not only which guys can play, but which combinations will work best. All teams have this problem to some degree but when you have the amount of roster turnover that Pitt did, it makes it even harder.
Then, of course, there's the prospect of playing halfway around the globe with the game being played in Japan. Gonzaga, too, must deal with this, so it's less of a factor. But it's obviously something that could negatively affect the Panthers since they have had some extended travel that they're not particularly used to. Remember the Hawaii game last season? Pitt made that extra long trip and ended up losing to a team that ended up being decent, but far from great.
It will be interesting to see how Pitt approaches the perimeter game in this one just because of the size they'll face in Gonzaga. Pitt hasn't been a great three-point shooting team in the past but with the new guards in play as well as Luther, who is a capable shooting big man, I wonder if Pitt will be more aggressive beyond the arc tonight. As with anything, game flow will dictate what Pitt does there throughout the whole contest. But I'm wondering if Pitt will come out and try to knock down some jumpers early and, particularly, how they will go after the three-point shot. And I'll say this, too. I don't think Durand Johnson's loss hurts the team all that much overall just because of his wild inconsistency, but it would be nice to have him in this game as a threat back there.
Despite all of the issues Pitt faces here, there is a little reason for optimism. Pitt, as I mentioned in the preview, is better at guard, forward, and center. In the backcourt, they should be more athletic, and overall, this is just a better team. And with the additions of Rafael Maia and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, while still undersized, they are better equipped to handle Gonzaga's size than they would have been last year with Joseph Uchebo and Derrick Randall. I also expect last year's crop of underclassmen, particularly Sheldon Jeter and Cameron Johnson, to take a step forward. And while Pitt is undersized, Michael Young and Jamel Artis seem poised as potential breakout stars. There is a lot to like about this team.
One thing I also like is that Pitt always seems to enjoy being the underdog. They don't always come out on top, but have found a way to knock off better teams with their toughness. We didn't see that as much last season, but if Pitt gets back to playing with some physicality (and more importantly, comes out hitting some shots from the perimeter), you never know. This is a program that has compiled too many upset victories to be counted out entirely.
Overall, I think Gonzaga's size is a problem, though. To win, Pitt will need to play a virtually perfect game (think North Carolina last year). Possible, just not probable in my estimation.
What say you about tonight's game?
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