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Pregame Party: Pittsburgh at Georgetown

Both fast-starting teams have yet to tally a Big East win. Which will emerge victorious Tuesday?

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Georgetown tries again to notch its first win of conference play Tuesday when the Hoyas host Pittsburgh. The Hoyas' conference home opener will come against a Panther squad that, like Georgetown, followed up an impressive non-conference run against middling competition with a somewhat less impressive introduction to conference play. This tilt has the added drama of being perhaps the last conference match-up between the two teams before the Panthers depart for the ACC in July.

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. Pitt has enjoyed consistent excellence for a decade, including nine 25-win seasons in ten seasons, four Sweet Sixteens, and one more Elite Eight. Save for an elusive Final Four berth, head coach Jamie Dixon continued to elevate a once-middling program to the Big East's upper tier.

Then came last season. An early home loss and a few shaky wins portended worse times ahead. The bottom really began to drop out before Christmas with another home loss (once a rarity at the Petersen Events Center) at the hands of Wagner. Seven straight more defeats followed, including a loss at DePaul and a home blowout by Rutgers. Pitt was resuscitated long enough to beat a sleepwalking Hoya bunch, then came alive at the end of the season, when the Panthers claimed the illustrious CBI Invitational title. That modest post-season accomplishment couldn't erase a 5-13 conference mark, Pitt's worst by a full five games over the past decade.

Even so, Pitt managed to piece together a playoff-aided 22 wins. And the Panthers had reasons for optimism this year, with the bulk of their rotation returning and talented reinforcements arriving. That optimism was rewarded early, as Pitt started 12-1, the lone blemish a narrow loss to now-No. 2 Michigan. But while the stat nerds enjoyed the Panthers' one-sided romps over the blind sisters of the poor, others questioned the level of competition. Those doubts were amplified this past week, when the Panthers dropped their conference home opener against a talented Cincinnati squad then lost their second game as well, at Rutgers.

Panthers to Know. The Panthers feature a deep rotation, with nine players likely to play double-figure minutes. Senior point guard Tray Woodall (11.5 ppg, 5.8 apg, 1.2 stl pg, 38.8 3FG%) does just about everything, ranking as as a particularly elite passer. While it's tempting to compare him to Pitt point guards gone by, Woodall actually can score once in a while, particularly from deep. Inside, Woodall has two large targets, the first of which junior forward Talib Zanna (13.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg), a onetime defense-and-rebounding specialist who has developed into an efficient finisher down low. Zanna is flanked by a seven-footer, freshman center Steven Adams (6.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.7 blk pg), who will clog the lane on defense, alter shots, pound the offensive boards, and even put the ball in occasionally.

Between Zanna and Woodall are two veteran wings. Lamar Patterson (9.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.7 apg) is versatile, rebounding well for a perimeter player while also dishing out assists left and right. Patterson developed an outside shot last year that has eluded him so far this season (41 3FG% last year; 32.7% this). Like Patterson, J.J. Moore (9.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg) crashes the boards, and also uses his athleticism to convert plays near the basket. The rest of the rotation is: Woodall's understudy, deft-passing freshman James Robinson (7.0 ppg, 4.3 apg); third big man Dante Taylor (4.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg); and big-name transfer Trey Zeigler (4.4 ppg, 1.3 rpg), whose contributions have waned, as Dixon apparently has decided that two Tra/eys are a crowd.

When Pittsburgh Has the Ball.

  • Panthers' strength: point guard play. Pitt has put together one of the most efficient offenses in the country without any standout scorers. This is possible because of Woodall, one of the better facilitating point guards in the country, and Robinson, who thus far has been a solid back-up. Throw in Patterson's helpers, and nearly two-thirds of Panther baskets are assisted, a top-five mark nationally. All the while, Pitt commits relatively few turnovers. Spacing and ball movement contribute to this smooth offensive machine, but having Woodall at the point helps most.
  • Hoyas' strength: packing the paint. Georgetown's best bet to gum up the works is to simply pack it in. Woodall's dribble drives, entry passes to Zanna and Adams, and the slashing of Moore and Patterson all will be limited if the Hoyas, whether in zone or man, simply dare Pitt to make an outside shot.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Three-pointers. The thorn in the Panthers' paw this year offensively has been three-point shooting: Pitt has no player shooting 40 percent from deep and as a team makes barely one out of every three attempts. The Panthers missed all ten three-point attempts in their loss to Cincinnati, then made just 8 of 26 in the defeat at Rutgers. If Woodall, Patterson, or another Panther makes a couple of outside looks, the Hoyas' defensive task could become more difficult.
    • Possessions. Much of the Panthers' offensive efficiency can be attributed to their unglamorous work at generating more possessions than their opponents. To do so, Pitt protects the ball (turnovers on just 15 percent of possessions, a top-five mark nationally) and grabs its own misses (43 percent, a top-six mark nationally). Add in Pitt's molasses-like pace (345th in the country, ahead of just American and Western Illinois), and the Panthers thrive on getting more possessions in a game with few of them, then exploiting those opportunities with high-percentage baskets.
    • Foul trouble. As it will in nearly every game this season, Georgetown will enjoy superior wing length (!!) against Pitt. But the Hoyas will meet their equals, and then some, in the post. A couple of early fouls on Nate Lubick or Mikael Hopkins could put stress on the Hoyas' post defense, requiring either a smaller line-up or the deployment of Moses Ayegba. (An aside, from the "things could be worse" file: Pitt's starting center, Adams, is shooting 34.6 percent from the line, a number that would draw even the beleaguered Hopkins's scorn.)

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • Hoyas' strength: ball movement. The rare instances when things went well Saturday resulted from crisp ball movement, with 14 assists on 18 made baskets. Markel Starks (more on him within) was the particular star, but the game reinforced that, with comparatively few individual playmakers, the Hoya offense succeeds when one or more players set up each other. Against a disciplined Pitt defense that prefers to slow things down, rapid ball movement--into the core of the defense, around the perimeter--will create the most open looks.
  • Panthers' strength: defensive rebounding. Pitt has grabbed more than 70 percent of opposing misses, a very solid number, while the Hoyas have been positively anemic on the offensive boards, corralling under nine offensive rebounds per game and just five in the Big East opener against Marquette. Georgetown can ill afford a poor shooting night Tuesday because the Hoyas can't expect many second chances.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Free throws. Georgetown made just 7 of 12 free throw attempts against Marquette, continuing a trend from non-conference play of not getting to the line often and not shooting well once there. The Hoyas need to start earning easy points, and drawing fouls is one way to do so. Tuesday may present one such opportunity, as Pittsburgh sent its first two Big East to the line a total of 55 times.
    • Pace. As mentioned, Pitt likes to slow things down on both end of the ball, making every opposing possession nip-and-tuck while patiently seeking out a good shot on offense. Can Georgetown force the issue in transition?
    • Markel Starks. After a horrendous start offensively against Marquette, Georgetown managed a decent second half, largely centered around Starks's work off the dribble. The Hoyas need the junior guard's productivity without his inconsistency.

Prediction. Both teams are facing somewhat dire circumstances, with Pittsburgh trying to avoid an 0-3 hole to start conference play and Georgetown seeking to avoid its second straight loss while also needing to prove its offensive mettle after a number of questionable performances. Even with those offensive struggles, the Hoyas nearly pulled off a road win at Marquette Saturday. Expect bounce-back performances from Georgetown's supporting cast Tuesday, and a narrow, low-scoring win. Georgetown 52, Pittsburgh 50.