Saturday, March 19, 2011

On a Certain NCAA Tournament Game

How much was Jamie Dixon to blame for Pitt's loss?
As objective sports journalists, we are supposed to be impartial to one game over another. We're supposed to treat all teams equally, to try and separate ourselves from the sports themselves in order to best explain them to others. Who would take any sports journalist's opinion if they knew exactly what team he roots for--at least, without them using some sort of statistics to back up their opinion? Either way, it's no secret that sports journalists are accused of being biased towards or against certain teams, and so it's with that in mind that I share this information--while I attend Temple University now, for two years I attended the University of Pittsburgh, and thus I consider myself a fairly interested Panthers fan. Now, I share that with you because I'm writing tonight about the Pitt/Butler game that took place this evening, which had one of the most screwed-up endings you could ever imagine for a basketball game. With 43 seconds left, the Panthers got the ball back with a 1-point lead. They then made three key mistakes that led to losing the game...

1. Ashton Gibbs waiting 20+ seconds before starting the offense on Pitt's possession.
I've been a huge fan of Pitt coach Jamie Dixon ever since I got into the program, when I decided to attend the school back in 2006. His teams always played hard, fought for rebounds, and didn't back down when the going got tough. There have been some in Pittsburgh who say he should be fired, that he hasn't brought the program up high enough, and I think those people are ridiculous--Pitt was an afterthought in the Big East just 15 years ago, and now it's a disappointment when they don't make a Final Four. It's clear the program has made improvement.

That being said, I am not a fan at all of what Coach Dixon ran with 43 seconds left on the clock and his team up one--a 20-second runoff with Ashton Gibbs holding the ball up near halfcourt before a handoff to Brad Wanamaker, who got double-teamed over near the Pitt bench with 5-6 seconds left on the shot clock. Pitt knew Butler would get the ball back--this wasn't about killing time as much as it was trying to get a basket that negated a Butler game-winning situation.

Pitt's offense is built around patience and ball movement, something that's tough to get done when you let the clock run down that far. If Dixon was smart, he'd have Gibbs start the offense with 15-20 seconds left on the clock, allowing for movement around the perimeter and trying to get some kind of open look. I'd rather take an open look with 18 seconds to go for a 3-point lead than go for a much tougher shot with 8 seconds left. Either way, if Butler is going to get the rebound off a miss, they will have enough time to call timeout and run a play. All that changes is how much time they would burn before going for a game-winner. Either way, Gibbs took too long (or Dixon gave him too long) to start the offense. This is where we ran into problem number 2....

2. Not calling a timeout when it was clear the offense was in trouble
Dixon had to know there was plenty of time left on the clock, that a turnover gives Butler the ball with easily enough time to get down the court, take a timeout, and still run a set play for a basket. Pitt should have taken advantage of that same situation, with 5 seconds left on the shot clock and an available timeout. As soon as Wanamaker got trapped in the corner, it was obvious that Pitt would not get off a decent shot. Taking the Panthers' final timeout would have allowed Pitt to set up a play that takes 3-4 seconds to run, gets off a really good shot--and still forces Butler to have to take the ball down the court with under 9 seconds left.

Think about it...if a shot-clock violation is not called, then the clock runs down easily another 3-4 seconds between a shot, a rebound, and Butler being able to secure possession (if they were going to at all). Instead, Pitt settled to a pass inside to Nasir Robinson, who (also not knowing the shot clock) kicked it out to Gibbs, but not before the shot clock ran out. The story then plays out as follows: Butler gets the ball with 8 seconds left, runs a set play and scores with 2.2 seconds left. Pitt gets fouled with 1.4 seconds left, Gil Brown makes the first. And that leads us to problem number 3:

Robinson fouled Butler's Howard (not pictured) with .8s left
3. Keeping Pitt's players on the blocks during FT #2 (or Robinson's foul)
Yes, I suppose in 1.4 seconds, a Bulldog could have collected a missed free-throw rebound and thrown the ball 85 feet for a game-winning bucket. And if that had happened, I don't think anybody would have blamed the coach. But instead, Brown missed the free throw, and Nasir Robinson (photo, on left) fouls Matt Howard with .8 seconds left on the clock. Will we hear an excuse for why the players were there? Most likely, and the early one I've heard is that Gil is "more comfortable" with his teammates on the blocks. But why would Robinson be anywhere near fouling Howard on that rebound? It's tough to blame this one on Dixon, if it was Gil's call about having the players on the blocks, but someone had to be reminding them of how much time was left on the clock. Either way, the entire situation could have been avoided if Dixon played to his team's strengths instead of trying to play like UConn.

That being said, Pitt played against the defending national runner-up, on a night when streaky shooter Shelvin Mack went 7-12 from beyond the arc. This is a guy who's normally a 33.3% three-point shooter, so he made 3-4 more shots than he would have: in other words, a 9-12 point margin. And it's not like Butler had many other scoring options, with Matt Howard going for 16 but nobody else getting more than 7. Pitt was running their offense well, shooting at a 56.5% clip and only turning it over 10 times, and even outrebounded the Bulldogs 31-21. But, Butler shot 12-27 (44.4%) from beyond the arc, and when a team gets hot it can be really tough to beat them. Sure, the Panthers might have done a good job shooting themselves in the foot, but Butler was no normal 8th seed. This was a team with the tournament moxie and experience needed to pull off the first upset of a #1 seed this March.

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