With Pitt's season opener against Gonzaga canceled at halftime due to a slippery floor, unfortunately we don't know if the Panthers could have upset the Top Ten Zags. But a half of basketball was played and if you're a Pitt fan, you should be encouraged by what you saw.
Yes, the floor was a train wreck. Yes, players certainly were not able to go all out. But a lot of good happened in those first 20 minutes.
We've talked a lot this year about the football team's defense but the basketball defense tonight was pretty spectacular. The Panthers got up and challenged shots, had hands in lanes, picking up some early steals, and overall just looked much improved over last season. Jay Bilas noted that early on and for anyone that watched the team last year, it was pretty easy to see the difference.
I really thought Pitt got the start they needed. In the preview, I talked about their approach early on and if they would look to shoot from the outside. They did, and had some success there getting three-pointers from Sterling Smith and James Robinson. The Panthers had four buckets from beyond the arc and that contributed to grabbing a small halftime lead.
Also early on, Gonzaga's size wasn't nearly as (excuse the pun) big as we talked about coming into the game. If you watched the game you could see this. But the box score is more evidence of that as the Panthers actually won the rebounding battle, 16-14. Few could have predicted that would happen and that was with Gonzaga making more baskets (50% to Pitt's 44%) no less.
Pitt was aggressive on defense and challenged shots of the taller Zags players, even recording some blocks. I'm not a huge blocked shots fan in term of a statistic, but I think the early blocks were key because they probably helped Pitt realize that the size was less of an issue and got the crowd into the game as well. I don't know if ANO got the start because he's legitimately the best big Pitt has to play in the middle, but I'm not sure that he'll be the starting center in every game. Tonight it could have been a matter of Pitt wanting to match Gonzaga's size.
Another roster note was Sterling Smith getting the start over Chris Jones. Smith did play okay in his limited time in the game, but Jones and Cameron Johnson combined for 12 points. He could have his hands full in trying to keep the starting spot and it will be interesting to watch as the year goes on. Sticking with the guard theme, James Robinson had a very good half, scoring seven points, hitting a three-pointer, and picking up two steal - all despite taking a nasty spill on the floor resulting in a sizable cut.
Overall, this was a very encouraging showing by Pitt. They hung with what is being billed as a top ten team, getting only a single point from arguably their best player, Jamel Artis, in the first half. I hope this wasn't merely a case of getting up for this game and if they give this kind of effort, particularly on defense, I think it will result in a very good season.
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