There are a few guarantees in college basketball: Wisconsin will be a top-25 team; John Calipari will have a supremely talented roster; Duke will win 25-plus games; and Pittsburgh will lock down defensively.
This season, though, the last of those isn’t working out too well. Since Jamie Dixon took over Pitt in 2003-04, the Panthers have ranked in the top-50 nationally in defensive efficiency nearly every season. In the first 13 games of this year, Pittsburgh ranks No. 149 nationally in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, giving up nearly one point per possession.
"Not defending as tough as they have in the past," one coach who faced Pitt earlier this season said. "Just not as tough minded."
The Panthers are allowing teams to shoot better than 48 percent against them from inside the arc, and are simply not giving teams any sort of pressure on the perimeter. They rank near the bottom nationally in turnover percentage, and teams are getting more than one point per possession on spot-up situations and catch-and-shoot situations, per Synergy Sports.
Last year, Brad Wanamaker was a physical defender who created problems for opposing guards, while Gilbert Brown’s size was also an issue. This season, the Panthers’ guards are getting beat off the dribble too often. Ashton Gibbs has improved his lateral quickness, but John Johnson, Cameron Wright and Lamar Patterson are all defending poorly on the perimeter.
Last season, the Panthers were tough when defending inside the arc. Gary McGhee was a very good rebounder and shot-blocker, and he was not afraid to throw his body around. There is no one like McGhee on the roster this year. Lamar Patterson is the team’s leading rebounder, and he’s 6-foot-5. Talib Zanna has been a solid rebounder in the minutes he gets, but he’s not consistent enough. The same goes for Dante Taylor. Freshman Khem Birch was Pitt’s best shot-blocker, but he left the team on December 16.
“I think losing Wanamaker, Brown and McGhee was significant,” one opposing coach said this season. “Especially on defense.”
When one pictures a Jamie Dixon defense, images of hard-working players who stifle perimeter shots and go after the glass at both ends of the floor come to mind. This team is rebounding as a team well – they actually rank No. 1 in offensive rebounding percentage – but they’re not the same rough-and-tumble team that people have seen in the Dixon era.
"It's a combination of experience, size and toughness," an opposing assistant coach said.
Last year, Pittsburgh allowed 70 points only five teams in the regular season. Already this season, the Panthers have given up at least 70 four separate times, including 78 points to Rider and 86 points to Long Beach State. Pittsburgh is very poor at defending transition, giving up 1.24 points per possession in those situations. Against teams that like to run, that’s a major problem.
I’ve been of the assumption that, after all, it’s Pittsburgh, they always defend well, and they’ll turn it around on that end of the floor. But as we enter conference play, the Panthers might be the worst defensive team in the league outside of DePaul.
While Dixon still has time to make adjustments, it’s certainly a cause for concern.
Photo: US Presswire