Friday, March 23, 2007

Gutter: Insert your witty "Pitt lost in the Sweet Sixteen again" cliche here

Okay, let’s say the obvious:

Pitt lost in the Sweet Sixteen. Again. Fourth time in four tries. Fourth time in six years. Nevermind that they got there; it only matters that they died there. Again.

Is it out of the way? Good, because I don’t want to hear it. This isn’t a program problem. Those four losses featured two different head coaches and a dozen or two different players. It’s hard to say that a college program has a problem getting past a hurdle like the Sweet Sixteen since the personnel of the team changes over time. And at Pitt, not only have the players changed, but the coach has changed, too.

So this isn’t a problem with the program. That’s not the story. The story is how Pitt lost this game, the game played in 2007, not 2002 or 2003 or 2004. 2007.

Do we have that out of our system then? Good.

For Pitt, the Sweet Sixteen opponent in 2007 was UCLA, coached by former Pitt head man Ben Howland. The game was proceeded by piles of talk about how the game would pit Howland against his former assistant, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, and how the game would feature two teams that played very similar styles. In particular, the teams shared a common focus on playing tough, lock-down defense.

For once, the pre-game talk was on-point, as Pitt and UCLA engaged in the basketball equivalent of a 9-6 football game. The final score was 64-55, and if you’re a fan of defensive basketball (and I guess there are people like that out there), then you probably loved this game. Otherwise, you probably hated it. Actually, I take that back: if you’re a fan of watching two teams really gut it out and play very hard against each other, then you were probably really into the game, even if Pitt and UCLA didn’t score much.

And really, you have to admire the effort of both Pitt and UCLA. Both teams wanted to play tough defense and make it really difficult for the other team to score, and both teams did just that. But why, exactly, is Pitt’s season over? Why couldn’t they beat the Bruins on Thursday night?

Well, it’s quite simple. Two reasons, really.

1. Pitt made a low percentage of their high-percentage shots.
2. UCLA shot miles above their heads from the free throw line.

That’s really what it comes down to. Time and time again, Pitt had layups that were on the low end of the difficulty scale, the highest of high-percentage shots, and they bricked them. Never mind Ronald Ramon’s fine three-point shooting (4-of-7); sure, those shots helped Pitt look like it could mount a comeback, but it was the bunnies that didn’t fall that killed their chances.

Numbers don’t usually lie, and this stat certainly doesn’t: Pitt hit 20 of their 55 field goal attempts.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to speak with former Pitt player Brandin Knight. Knight is currently the Panthers’ video coordinator, and he played at Pitt when Howland was the head coach. Figuring that he would know as well as anyone, I asked him what it takes to beat a Ben Howland team. He said a couple things about sustaining pace and tempo and that sort of basketball speak. Then he summed it up succinctly:

”It all comes down to who’s making shots. That’s the main thing.”

How very prescient, Brandin.

That’s what it was: Pitt needed to make its shots. And not the tough shots, not the fadeaway jumpers from just inside the line, not the turn-around hooks, not the NBA three’s. Pitt needed to make the shots that it makes on a nightly basis, the shots that piled up 29 wins this season. This was a team that shot nearly 70% against Georgetown during the two teams’ regular season match-up in Pittsburgh. Now, on that night they got a few lucky bounces, but by and large their astronomical shooting percentage came from getting the high-percentage shots to fall.

That’s what they needed against UCLA. And that’s what they didn’t get.

Pitt was even with UCLA in rebounds. They had more assists and fewer turnovers than the Bruins. And they had more blocked shots, more offensive rebounds, and more steals.

But the shots didn't fall for the Panthers. As such, they lost. Simple as that.

And then there’s the matter of UCLA making every single free throw. Okay, not every single one, but 23 out of 26 is pretty darn close to 100% (according to ESPN, it’s 88.5%). The thing of it is, the Bruins are a team that shoots 65% from the charity stripe. They’re not a great free throw shooting team. They’re not even a good free throw shooting team. As a matter of fact, they’re widely considered to be among the worst free throw shooting teams in the nation, at least among the teams that are considered to be “good.”

But they made their free throws on Thursday night. Meanwhile, Pitt was 8-of-14 from the line. That’s a 15 point difference in free throws alone. A 15 point advantage in a 9 point game is a big difference.

And so it goes. Pitt lays an egg, and the season is over. The Panthers may be able to take something away from this game, knowing that they had a chance to top UCLA and advance to the Elite Eight.

But they didn’t make their shots, and they aren’t moving on.

It’s over.

Anyone want to talk spring football?

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