Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
The final college basketball game to be held at Philadelphia’s Spectrum will match a pair of cross-Pennsylvania, Big East rivals, when #1 Pittsburgh (18-1, 5-1) faces #35 Villanova (15-4, 3-3). The Spectrum hosted the Final Four in both 1976 and 1981, though neither provided the building’s most memorable NCAA tournament moment. It also hosted 6 straight Atlantic-10 conference tournaments in the late 90s, but its time as a major facility for big events has long since passed.
Pittsburgh started the season 16-0, but had only one quality win, at Georgetown, during that streak, which ended last week at Louisville. That loss hasn’t seemed to have shaken the Panthers, though, as they responded with double-digit wins over Syracuse and West Virginia. Villanova put up a strong non-conference record, with its only loss coming to Texas, but had no really impressive wins. In Big East play, the Wildcats have been inconsistent, alternating wins with losses to reach a 3-3 record. The losses all came against top teams, Marquette, UConn and Louisville, while the victories have come over the lower tier of the conference.
Pittsburgh is an offensive juggernaut, but you wouldn’t know that from its shooting percentages, which are good, but nothing special. Where Pitt makes its hay is on the offensive glass, recovering 43% of its misses and creating a lot of high-percentage second chances that boost its two-point shooting over 50%. The Panthers also commit very few turnovers, so they are able to end a lot of possessions with a made shot. Villanova has been very strong defensively, especially inside; it sits in the upper echelon of the Big East in both defending two-point shots and recovering rebounds. This puts a huge significance on DeJuan Blair’s minutes: if he finds himself in foul trouble, Villanova will have a good advantage inside. Also, Villanova’s defense has had its biggest struggles when opponents dominate the offensive glass against them, so this battle will be critical to the Wildcats’ overall success. This should be a close game down the stretch, so its worth mentioning that Pitt’s free throw shooting is at a mediocre 65% on the season.
Villanova’s offense has been nowhere as strong as Pitt’s, but the two do share the same basic idea: they make a decent number of shots, but really gain an advantage in the other areas of the game. Villanova doesn’t have a speciality on offense, but does everything well, not giving up many turnovers, getting back a good number of misses, and making frequent trips to the free throw line, where it shoots a Big East leading 75%. Pittsburgh ‘s defense depends on stopping shots, as it is only average at rebounding and forcing turnovers. The Panthers are especially strong inside, where opponents make only 42% of attempts.
Pitt’s DeJuan Blair is as good a rebounder as there is in college basketball, and is critical to the Panthers continued success. Blair is 4th nationally in rebounding despite playing 7 or 8 less minutes a game than most of the other national leaders, and pulls down an absurd 25% of his team’s misses, which if it holds for the season, would be the highest percentage of the last five years. Blair has also improved his offensive game, making nearly 60% of his shots and committing very few turnovers. He also leads the team in steals and blocks. Sam Young leads the team in scoring, and hits nearly 50% of shots from the field, including a healthy showing from the three-point line. Levance Fields is the third member of Pitt’s critical trio, second nationally with nearly 7 assists a game, and a stellar 3.5 A/TO ratio. This group of three, in terms of ability inside and outside, is as good as any in the nation. Tyrell Biggs also starts in the frontcourt, he shoots over 50% and does a good job getting the few boards that slip through Blair’s grasp. Freshman Jermaine Dixon has shot a good percentage from two, but ruined it with an abysmal show from three-point range. Brad Wanamaker is a good shooting option off the bench, while Gilbert Brown is an effective shooter and rebounder who serves as a solid depth player for the frontcourt.
Villanova features an excellent inside-outside duo in 6-8 Dante Cunningham and 6-2 Scottie Reynolds; the two lead the team in every major category. Cunningham has not improved his play much from his solid 07-08 season, but has taken a much larger role without dropping his level, a very impressive feat. He’s a 54% shooter from the field, and averages 7 rebounds and more than a steal and a block per game. Reynolds hasn’t been quite as effective, but he’s a solid outside shooter and a good distributor of the ball, and is an excellent guy late in the game, especially from the line. Beyond Reynolds and Cunningham, five other players average between 24-and-26 minutes, providing the Wildcats with some good depth. Sophomore Corey Stokes is a 45% three-point shooter off the bench, while fellow guards Corey Fisher and starter Reggie Redding have struggled with their respective shots. Inside, Antonio Pena is the team’s best rebounder and a decent scorer, and Dwayne Anderson’s return from a stress fracture also provides a good player on the boards, though Anderson can be too three-happy at times. Shane Clark also provides some good minutes inside, he’s a decent rebounder who doesn’t do much on offense.
The battle to watch would seem to be on Villanova’s defensive glass, where Pitt’s ability to gain second-chance points may put them over the top. If the Wildcats can defend the inside, Pitt will be forced to look to the outside more, somewhat nullifying its strengths. Ultimately, Villanova is a team that looks like it is just a small step below the elite of the Big East, and Pitt should further demonstrate that tonight.
Winner: Pittsburgh Margin: 3-7
-- Evan Dorey's rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple: all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.