Monday, December 31, 2012
Big East opener ugly, especially for Pitt
By Eamonn Brennan
Cincinnati is ugly. It's just a fact. The Bearcats aren't fluid or smooth or any of the adjectives we use to describe the kind of offensive basketball teams we love to watch and make the game look like a complicated classical dance.
Whatever that is, the Bearcats are the opposite. They are choppy and physical -- equal parts brute strength and timing. They guard you. They rebound misses. And they are absolutely perfect for the Big East.
In many ways, after today's 70-61 Big East-opening win at the Peterson Events Center in Pittsburgh, Mick Cronin's team is what most people always seem to assume of Pitt. For years, Jamie Dixon's team has been lauded not only for its offensive rebounding (and rightly so) but for the Panthers' defensive strength. It's as though games played at a slow pace automatically equaled good defense. Instead, for much of the past five seasons, the Panthers' hyperefficient offense (led by all those offensive rebounds) has been the true source of their strength. Good defense was merely a bonus.
Pittsburgh's Cameron Wright defends Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick in a bruising Big East matchup Monday.
But if you're looking for that team, look no further than Cincinnati. The Bearcats are one of the nation's best on the offensive glass. Defensively, before Monday's game, Cincinnati was holding opponents to the fifth-lowest adjusted points per possession (per KenPom.com) figure in the country. Opponents were making just 36.6 percent on 2-point shots, the lowest inside-the-arc figure of any defense in the country.
In other words, it was a bad day for Pitt to go 0-for-10 from beyond the arc. Actually, it is never a good time to go 0-for-10 from beyond the arc. The Panthers aren't a bad 3-point shooting team -- they make about 36 percent of their threes -- but they don't take many. Per the usual, Pitt's strength lies on the interior, where the Bearcats are at their defensive best. So when the Panthers went 23-of-42 from 2, well, fine. You'll take that. Assuming, of course, that you also don't go 0-for-10 from 3. Yikes.
Despite the ugly offense and typically stingy Bearcats defense, the Panthers still had chances to win the game. They were in control for much of the first and early second half. The earliest turning point came when Cincinnati guard Cashmere Wright -- whose bad shots are really bad, but who can put you away with a flourish -- hit a contested 3 to put Cincinnati up 51-45 at the nine-minute mark. The game stayed tight, but after little-used David Nyarsuk made some major contributions on the offensive glass, Wright knocked down two more huge shots -- one a 20-foot step-back, the other a space-creating fadeaway in the lane. Both came with a huge degree of difficulty.
Pittsburgh made a late last-ditch comeback, but when it needed a boost from long range, it fell short. The Panthers also committed a couple of unbelievably bad fouls down the stretch. The game as a whole was not officiated well. Panthers fans may be disheartened by the rare home loss, but there is plenty of reason for optimism. For example: Tray Woodall and Steven Adams, probably the team's two best players, missed large portions of the game with foul trouble. Trey Zeigler, a potential star transfer from Central Michigan, still hasn't carved out a significant role. This team is already pretty good, and if Panthers fans were enjoying flying under the national radar, that won't change for at least a few more days.
But mostly Pitt should take heart that a team custom-built for the rigors of the Big East -- a team that embodies the bruising old-school identity better than many of the league's old-school members have in decades -- was simply better and tougher on the glass and in the paint. This loss was less an indictment than a reason to give Cincinnati credit.
The Bearcats' numbers won't wow you. Their offense might make your eyes bleed. They'll take bad shots, and they rarely play with syncopation or rhythm. For the basketball aesthete, they can be a chore.
But they're a chore for opponents, too. They rebound like crazy, they guard even better, and they make shots when they need them. In the 2012 Big East, that might just be enough.