Were you to engage in a quick word association game, the term "offensively prolific" wouldn't be the first phrase you'd offer when asked about Pittsburgh's college basketball team. It isn't what immediately comes to mind, nor should it be. A school located in a city that prides itself on being blue collar, defensive minded and mean, the Panthers' mantra of preventing their opponent from scoring points, as opposed to simply outscoring them, has been the driving force for their success in the past decade. Since 2001, the program holds the distinction of never ranking lower than 10th in the country in defensive points-per-possession, nor allowing their opponents to average more than 65 points-per-game.
But while their defensive efforts remain laudable, a shift is taking place in Oakland. As the Panthers make yet another run at a Big East title -- and seek to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1941 -- they’re currently putting together one of the most impressive offensive team stats in the tempo-neutral era. Sitting atop Ken Pomeroy's Adjusted Offensive Efficiency Ratings, the Panthers score 124.5 points per 100 possessions. Each of the last six national champions have been tops in the country in this statistic. And just for good measure, the Panthers have a 55 Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%), mainly because they are not reliant on the deep ball, but rather employ a tactful approach to shot selection, shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc.
Those numbers aside, the real hint that Pittsburgh is playing basketball at an unprecedented level comes from their ability to share. As the nation’s leaders in assists, at 20.4 a game, the Panthers are scoring off the pass a whole five more times than last season, with an astounding 70 percent of their 1,300 points this season coming off of an assist. In the backcourt, all players in the rotation are averaging career highs in assists. The team’s top three scorers (Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown) also move the ball as they each average at least three assists a game, collectively helping to maintain Pittsburgh's 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio. That's good for second in the country.
Very rarely do you see a coach break character in front of a reporter, but after looking at the stat sheets following Saturday’s victory against Marquette, Jamie Dixon had no choice but to be candid of his team's efficient performance:
"We shot 60 percent," Dixon told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook, starting his game summary. "We had 10 turnovers, below the 12 that we want. This will help our assist-to-turnover ratio, which is the best in the country. Twenty-four assists to 10 turnovers speaks volumes. We shot [55.6 percent] from 3 and 70 [percent from the line. Offensively, you can't be any more efficient than that."
/thinks how to not say something smug, but only for a quick second.
"We're pretty good,"
Given this program’s Indianapolis Colts-like track record of posting an impressive win/loss total that precedes an abrupt exit in the postseason, many probably shrug off any sort of pro-Pittsburgh talk until they’re cutting down nets at a regional final. But with the personnel that allows this team to score almost at will, resulting in this highest per-game scoring average in the program's history (well, since StatSheet starting keeping track), the Panthers may have finally solved the algorithm that leads to the Final Four.
With a gun to my head way back in November, I picked Pittsburgh to play for the National Championship. Then following their convincing loss to the then upstart Tennessee Volunteers, I had my reservations. But numbers don’t lie. You’re looking at one of the most buttoned up offenses in the country, and when a "defense first" team can also score, shoot and share, you have a recipe for an elite college basketball team, one that may end up being the best in the program's history.
- Ryne Smith – There’s no trade deadline in college basketball, no way to bolster your roster mid-way through the season. But Matt Painter may have finally found his third option on offense in Smith. Named Big Ten co-player of the week due in large part to shooting 80 percent from long range in wins against Iowa and Penn State, he's doing his best to mitigate the loss of Robbie Hummel. If Smith can scare opposing coaches into not letting defenders leave him open, that makes the Boilermakers better, creating more space for E’Twaun Moore and Lewis Jackson to get into the lane.
- Yahoo!'s Jason King – Trying to get in a nice cry today? Read this comprehensive piece from Jason King on the bond shared by Florida' Billy Donovan, Alabama's Anthony Grant and Arkansas' John Pelphrey. You're probably wondering what could possibly be so sad about this trio, but all three have experienced the loss of a child at birth. Excellent perspective provided here by King.
Gingerfro – If college basketball were a dimly lit living room with high-ceilings, old Herman Wouk novels and plush carpeting, there would be an awkward pink elephant in the corner donning a Wisconsin jersey. That elephant is Badgers sophomore forward Mike Bruesewitz, and he’s the latest fan-favorite college basketball player that doesn’t look like a college basketball player. Every season has one, and this year it’s Bruesewitz. Check out Luke Winn's "Mid-Season Style Report" for a look at what's trendy now.
- Butler – En route to a 15-1 start, Cleveland State got some thinking they would challenge Butler for the Horizon League title. They still will, but mentally they have to be a bit down on themselves following a 76-59 drubbing at Hinkle last Friday night. Order restored. The Bulldogs got off to a rough start this season, reacquainting themselves to life as a mid-major, one without Gordon Hayward. But they're 8-1 since losing to Xavier last month, and reminded us all that they still possess the right pedigree to have a successful season.
Jimmer Fredette – We’re running out of adjectives. Fredette hung 47 in the Holy War on Tuesday night, forcing me to concede defeat trying to eloquently describe this kid. Just watch this barrage of deep three pointers from the coolest basketball player in the history of the world.
- Roscoe Smith - This is an absolute gimmie. Locked up in a tight one against Texas, the Huskies' callow freshman went completely blind to time and score, heaving a full-court prayer with a comfortable 12 seconds left. Unfortunately there's not HQ video available, but if you look closely, the ball actually lands in the megaphone of one of Texas' cheerleaders.
- Auburn - Does the Tigers BCS National Championship offset their basketball team's woes? Yes, actually, it does, especially in this football-first pocket of the country. But six first-half points on Saturday against LSU, and a 78-54 drubbing against Kentucky means this may be the worst team from the big six conferences.
- Derek Elston - The District 5 Peewee hockey team couldn't win even when they cheated, and neither can the Indiana Hoosiers. En route to their fourth Big Ten loss in as many tries, Tom Crean's sophomore forward appears to intentionally trip Northwestern's Alex Marcotullio. Crean is sticking by his player, saying that if Elston's leg kick wasn't inadvertent, it "would be truly out of character." We'll let you be the judge...
- Some unnamed Washington Husky - On Tuesday Lorenzo Romar told the media that Seattle Police had launched an investigation stemming from sexual assault accusations of a Husky player made by a 16-year old girl Much like the September sexual assault accusations temporarily placed against two Michigan State players, we're not sure who the culprit is here. As of now, no charges have been filed and no players have been suspended from the team.
- A small sect of Big Blue Nation - Because of the fanbase, I naturally caught a lot of flack over the weekend for calling out the angry tweeters in the Bluegrass State. That's okay though, as it's become more and more clear that Enes Kanter barely had a fighting chance of ever playing college basketball.
It was Tweeted
Games This Weekend
Thursday (All times EST)
- Purdue @ Minnesota (ESPN) 7 p.m.
- Providence @ West Virginia (ESPN2) 7 p.m.
- Virginia Tech @ North Carolina (ESPN) 9 p.m.
- Mississippi State @ Ole Miss (ESPN2) 9 p.m.
- Loyola Marymount @ Portland (ESPN2) 11 p.m.
- Butler @ Detroit (ESPNU) 9 p.m.
- Marquette @ Louisville (ESPN) 11 p.m.
- Vanderbilt @ Tennessee (ESPN) 12 p.m.
- Maryland @ Villanova (CBS) 1 p.m.
- Missouri @ Texas A&M (ESPN2) 1 p.m.
- Northwestern @ Michigan State (Big Ten Network) 1 p.m.
- Virginia @ Duke (ESPN) 2 p.m.
- Illinois @ Wisconsin (Big Ten Network) 3 p.m.
- Penn State @ Ohio State (Big Ten Network) 5 p.m.
- Dayton @ Xavier (CBS College Sports) 8pm
- Purdue @ West Virginia (CBS) 1:30 p.m.