Pittsburgh Panthers Look to Carry Over Strong Play Into Conference Action

By Michael Roberts
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The #24 Pittsburgh Panthers have completed their non-conference schedule, emerging as one of the Big East’s biggest surprises this season.

The 12-1 Panthers have been dominate to begin the year but mostly overlooked due to a schedule that’s been far from competitive. Pittsburgh’s only loss of the year came against the only ranked teamed they’ve played against in a 67-62 loss to the Michigan Wolverines.

Despite the losing effort, the game remains the closest anybody has come to defeating the 12-0 Wolverines this season. Don’t be fooled by a weak early season schedule, the Panthers are a lot stronger than they’ve been getting credit for.

Being ranked for the first time this year after the release of the latest rankings, Pittsburgh is led by a deep roster that features 10 players averaging double-digit minutes.

Talib Zanna leads the team in scoring, rebounding and field goal average while being ranked fourth in minutes played. The junior forward is averaging 13.2 points and 6.3 rebounds, while shooting 62.4% from the floor in only 23.2 minutes per game. At 6-foot-9, 230lbs, Zanna combines with seven-foot, 250lbs freshman Steven Adams, to give Pittsburgh one of conference’s toughest front courts to try and contain.

After coming into the season with a lot of hype surrounding him, Adams hasn’t exactly blown away the competition but he’s been far from disappointing. The center averages 7.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks while shooting 62.3% from the field. After struggling to adjust to the college game early on, the freshman recently displayed with a breakout performance that his season totals could be about to get higher.

The Panthers are second in the nation in assists per game with 19.6 and the majority of that is provided by the play making they receive from their three perimeter starters.

Tray Woodall ranks fifth in the conference in assists per game with his average of 5.8 assists per contest. The senior is Pittsburgh’s second leading scorer with 11.7 points while shooting 51.8% from the floor. Lamar Patterson also chips in with 9.2 points, 3.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game.

However, perhaps the team’s biggest surprise this year has been the play of freshman starter James Robinson. Coach Jamie Dixon clearly knew what he was doing when he decided to start two freshmen for the first time in his career with the Panthers.

Robinson sits 10th in the conference in assists per game while doing a fantastic job of taking care of the ball. The 6-foot-3 guard is averaging 4.5 assists while committing less than a full turnover a game with only 0.8 per contest. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.27:1 is the best among the top 40 play makers in the conference. Robinson leads the Panthers in minutes played with 29.1 per game to go along with 7.2 points, 2.2 rebounds while shooting 85% from the free throw line.

The depth of the Panthers continues onto their bench with key rotation players J.J. Moore and Dante Taylor. Moore is the team’s third leading scorer despite coming off the bench, averaging 10.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in 20.5 minutes of action. While in 17.5 minutes, Taylor is the team’s third leading rebounder with averages of 4.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 61.9% from the floor.

Dixon’s player rotation that has 10 players average double-digit minutes will likely come to an end once conference play tips-off. Given the weak non-conference schedule the coach was able to rest his main players while giving confidence to those he may need down the line. However, if he wants to have success against Big East competition, he’ll need to keep his best players on the floor and reel in the minutes handed out. Still, a value can’t be placed on the confidence gained by Robinson playing big minutes while alongside a senior play maker like Woodall, or Moore understanding his role as an offensive spark off the bench.

It’s not outrageous to suggest Pittsburgh could still be undefeated. After all, the team lost to the Wolverines by only five while Adams went scoreless and Zanna finished with only seven points. When a team’s impressive front court finishes combined with only seven points and seven rebounds and the team still makes it a competitive game, it displays all the makings of a deep and talented roster.

The Cincinnati Bearcats are going to have their hands full on New Year’s Eve when the two schools begin their conference schedules.

Michael covers ACC and Big East basketball along with the Toronto Raptors for Rant Sports, you can follow him on Twitter @MichaelxRoberts

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