Commentary

Style points not included -- and not necessary -- in Pitt's game

Originally Published: December 2, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- Told his team's 57-43 win over Washington State made up in tenacity for what it lacked in aesthetic pleasure, DeJuan Blair laughed.

DeJuan Blair
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPittsburgh native DeJuan Blair has gotten into shape since arriving on the Pitt campus and has produced down low for the Panthers.
"I guess we have to get pretty," he said.

Actually, the last thing the Panthers need is a makeover. Their beauty is in their ability to get ugly. In the age of swishing 3s and skying dunks, everyone can get pretty on offense. Watching North Carolina when its game is in a groove is like watching ballet with a basketball. Yet when Roy Williams opened this season, he said he would spend 12 minutes of the Tar Heels' first two-hour practice on offense and 1:48 on defense.

He may or may not have been joking.

Pitt, too, can get out on the floor when the game calls for it, a la the 80-67 win over guns-up Texas Tech in the semifinals of the Legends Classic.

What separates the Panthers, what makes them more than just an intriguing team as this season unfolds, is their bread-and-butter, backbone defense.

It's as reliable as an old pair of sneakers, the foundation on which coach Jamie Dixon has built his program. Unintentionally, Dixon has modeled his team on the city it calls home. Pittsburgh citizens wear just one sort of collar -- down-and-dirty blue. Their hometown team likes its basketball just the same.

And because the defense is indoctrinated like another strand of DNA upon arrival freshman year, it doesn't go away and doesn't take nights off. It's in your face, unforgiving, downright nasty, and because of it, on nights when shots don't fall, neither necessarily will Pittsburgh.

Not every team in the top 25 can say that.

"It's the Steel City," Levance Fields said. "That's the place we call our second home and that's how we play."

Never was that more obvious than in the Legends final. In an avert-your-eyes, hide-the-children ugly game against similarly minded Washington State, the Panthers looked perfectly comfortable. They shot poorly the entire game -- 35 percent from the floor, 23 percent on 3s -- and never looked rattled. There was never a flinch or even so much as a grimace as one clang led to another against a Wazzu team that would have been perfectly happy to play this game in the 30s.

[+] EnlargeSam Young
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicSam Young is Pitt's leading scorer with 19.4 points a game.
Instead, Pitt scrapped and scraped, forcing 15 turnovers and holding Wazzu to three points in the final five minutes. The Panthers closed in so tight, they probably could have counted the Cougars' cavities.

Freshman Klay Thompson (son of former NBA star Mychal), who shoots 46 percent from the field, hit 3-of-5 in the first half.

He finished 3-of-12 as Jermaine Dixon blanketed Thompson into frustration.

"The first half, he sort of shot without a conscience," Pitt forward Sam Young said of Thompson. "In the second half, he couldn't get a shot off. He looked surprised to be open."

It all added up to a decidedly content Jamie Dixon departing New Jersey.

In three nights, his team played two teams as disparate as can be. Texas Tech coach Pat Knight has chucked his father's staid offense in favor of a team that isn't shy about scoring. The Red Raiders scored 167 against East Central.

Wazzu could easily go three games without scoring 167.

Yet Pittsburgh handled both teams with ease.

"I think we got a lot smarter," Dixon said. "We weren't this good a month ago. This trip made us better. Texas Tech is very good offensively and they're a hard team to guard. This game [against Washington State], we had to understand the need to play with patience, and we did that."

It's the Steel City. That's the place we call our second home and that's how we play.

--Levance Fields

Dixon is blessed to have experienced players who know the value of good defense. Young, Fields and forward Tyrell Biggs are seniors, Blair a savvy sophomore. But no one arrived at Pitt committed to defense. Young admitted he was convinced he could just outscore everyone; Blair said he was "too fat" to play the way Dixon wanted him to play.

Now, with three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and last season's gut-it-out Big East tournament title, they understand that what Dixon preaches works. No one likes to play defense. Everyone likes the fruit of a good defensive effort.

"You get stops," Blair said. "That's what it's all about. That's what gets us going."

This isn't exactly breaking news. Good defense has been the benchmark of the Pitt program for some time now.

Never have the Panthers done this with so much talent. They go 10-deep, calling guys like Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown off the bench.

And this team does it a little differently. They are quicker and smaller, more hyperkinetic-scrappy than lumbering-dominant, able and willing to run the floor with fast breaks off their defensive pressure. Washington State's 15 turnovers equated to 17 Pittsburgh points.

Jamie Dixon
Rich Kane/US PresswireThe Panthers' defense hasn't missed a beat since Jamie Dixon took over for former Pitt coach Ben Howland in 2003.
More, the Panthers are hardly a one-trick pony. This defense isn't masking a subpar offense. This defense is complementing what could be a very good offense. When all its parts are fit and healthy, Pitt can score.

Fields is still toting extra pounds packed on during his extended rehab on a broken foot. Brown is just getting back from his stress fracture. When those two are on target, mixing them together with Young, a dazzling playmaker, and Blair, a beast underneath, makes the Panthers every bit as formidable offensively as they are defensively.

The game against Wazzu was the first grinder of the season for Pitt. Prior to that, the Panthers averaged a high-flying 82.3 points per game.

Pittsburgh players are unabashed in their goals for this season -- "We're playing for a national championship," Young said -- a notion that critics certainly would scoff at. Without a happy meal of McDonald's All-Americans, without the finesse and maybe even grace of some of the other teams out there, the Panthers don't always look like a national title-contending team.

But Pitt has another goal in mind -- to prove looks can be deceiving.

"They aren't going to blow you away, but I wouldn't sleep on them," Washington State coach Tony Bennett said. "It doesn't matter how you look; it's how you play."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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