In preparation of Michigan’s NIT Season Tip-Off Semifinal against Pittsburgh on Wednesday evening, we reached out to Anson Whaley from Cardiac Hill to glean some insights about the Panthers. Pittsburgh sits at 4-0, after escaping an upset bid from Oakland over the weekend, and will provide the Wolverines toughest challenge to date.
What went wrong for Pittsburgh last season and will this year be different? Why or why not?
Pitt had a multitude of things go wrong last year. For one, Tray Woodall, the team’s starting point guard, missed a good number of games with a hernia injury and even when he came back, he wasn’t the same player and was clearly still not fully recovered. Starting senior Nasir Robinson played the entire year, but it was widely reported late in the season that he had significant knee issues and wasn’t close to 100% all season. Senior guard Ashton Gibbs’ shot completely disappeared as well. Then mix in the fact that Khem Birch, possibly the highest rated recruit in the history of the program, transferred out after only 1/3 of the season and that the Panthers played several freshmen last season as well, and you had a recipe for disaster.
Things should be different this season, though. The biggest thing is that the team is just deeper. They have ten guys that should all get legitimate minutes this year and even when someone struggles, there’s a quality player behind them. Their depth, particularly in the backcourt, was evidenced last week when sophomore John Johnson announced he was transferring. Johnson played nearly 15 minutes a game last year as a true freshman, but with so many quality guards, including the transfer Trey Zeigler from Central Michigan, he would have been hard-pressed to find minutes. Pitt is just a really deep and talented team.
Steven Adams is a top ten freshman, how has the big man played this year?
Adams has been solid, but hasn’t yet broken out. He’s a very good rebounder and a strong defensive player, but his offense hasn’t yet caught up to him. He’s also lacking aggression at times and needs to be a bit more assertive. That said, the team needs to feed him the ball a bit more, too. He’s only averaging about five shots a game and that number really should be at least seven or eight. Adams was completely dominated in Pitt’s near upset loss to Oakland this weekend and will have some ups and downs, but averaging about eight points and six rebounds a game, he’s definitely contributing.
When I think of Pittsburgh, I think of offensive rebounding. How has this year’s team performed on the offensive glass?
Pitt ranks 87th in offensive rebounding as of right now and overall [ED: But an impressive 12th in offensive rebounding percentage] , they’re only at 182nd – so, there’s clearly room for improvement there. Adams, the starting center, and power forward Talib Zanna combine for only ten rebounds per game, and that’s simply not enough. Two of the Panthers’ three best rebounders are actually bench players, Dante Taylor and J.J. Moore.
Offensively, part of the reason they are rebounding less can probably be tied to the fact that they’ve shot so well. Pitt ranks in the top 20 in shooting percentage, hitting more than 52% of their attempts. Still, though, there’s room for improvement.
Tray Woodall is experienced in the backcourt and will likely match-up with Burke, how do you see that battle playing out?
I don’t know that I’ve watched Burke play, so not sure what type of style he brings. But while Woodall might not match him in points, he’s been a very good player so far this season. Before a disastrous 2-14 performance against Oakland, he’s been incredibly efficient and was making 53% of his shots entering that game. Woodall’s at his best when he’s not throwing up three-pointers (he isn’t very good from that range), limiting his shot selection, and finding open men. He also doesn’t turn the ball over very much and, ranking 13th in assists at 7.3 per game, he has an assist/turnover ratio of nearly 4:1. If Pitt wants to win against Michigan, Woodall will need to have a solid game and help with the scoring to try to keep up with the Wolverines’ backcourt.
How has Trey Zeigler played? He was once a priority recruit for the Wolverines and will certainly receive his fair share of attention from U-M fans.
Zeigler has fit in pretty well so far and has been efficient when shooting, making half of his shots and averaging 6.5 a game. He’s getting about 18 minutes a game off the bench right now, but I expect that number could increase slightly as the season goes on. True freshman James Robinson is getting 30 minutes a game right now and that seems like a lot. Robinson is a good player, but Zeigler is probably capable of a bit more offense than him. The general consensus was that Zeigler would start over Robinson, but that hasn’t been the case. But if Pitt gets into some games where they need to score, I expect Zeigler to see more time. The other factor at guard is that Cam Wright is getting about 11 minutes a game on the average, but has seen that cut significantly the past two games. Zeigler has a good shot to pick up his minutes and with John Johnson transferring last week, things open up even more for him.
Who is the X-factor for Pitt? What player could shift the course of the game that might not be one of the stars?
The X-factor for me in this game is either starting point guard James Robinson (whose defense will be needed to slow down Michigan’s backcourt) or reserve J.J. Moore. Since he comes off the bench, I’ll go with the latter. Moore could start for many teams, but (for now, anyway) is behind Lamar Patterson who had a bit of a breakout season last year. Patterson has struggled so far this year, though, and Moore has more than picked up the slack. He’s the third leading scorer and rebounder on the team averaging just over 13 a game and his shot selection has drastically improved.
Even though Moore has outplayed Patterson to this point in the season, I actually like him coming off the bench because he’s able to provide an offensive spark when needed. He’s probably the most athletic kid on the team and is really playing well this year. Without his big game against Oakland (16 points, 10 rebounds – both team highs), Pitt surely wouldn’t have won. If the Panthers can’t slow Michigan much offensively, Moore will be needed to help the team try to keep pace with them.
How do you see Wednesday’s game playing out? What match-up or statistic is most critical?
Even though Michigan’s 89 points a game have come against some pretty weak teams, I don’t think that number is an aberration. The Wolverines look legit to me and while Pitt’s offense is pretty good, it’s not as explosive as Michigan’s. Both teams have shot very well this year and rank in the top 20 in shooting percentage, so this one’s coming down to defense. Whichever team can get out and defend while forcing their opponent into bad shots should win here. That holds true for most games, but with two teams shooting so well, I think it’s particularly the case here.
The other factor is that the game is in Madison Square Garden, and that’s kind of like a home away from home for Pitt. They have a good fan base in the area doing a good bit of recruiting in NY/NJ in recent years, and fans from here often make the trips up. Pitt beat Duke there a few years ago, knocked off Maryland and Texas in successive games there two years ago, and plays the Big East Tournament there. Because of that and the defensive factor, I actually like Pitt’s chances. I don’t know that they’ll win, but at the very least, I expect it to be a fairly close game.