Sunday, December 26, 2010

Full Court Press: UConn-Pitt Preview

Ashton Gibbs leads Pittsburgh back home for Big East opener against UConn tomorrow night at the Petersen Center. (Photo courtesy of SportsNet New York)

Conference season is finally upon us, and there really isn't a better matchup to start the league slate than this one at the Petersen Center. Sixth-ranked Pittsburgh takes the court at its on-campus venue tomorrow night to welcome the No. 4 Connecticut Huskies into the arena known by students and Pitt fans as the "Oakland Zoo" in what will be the second conference game in Division I, (Penn State-Indiana tips off two hours prior) but the first in the Big East. While UConn has been a pleasant surprise since dispatching Michigan State and Kentucky on their way to a shocking Maui Invitational win, Pitt has held serve as the preseason pick to win the Big East, save for a loss to Tennessee in the SEC/Big East Invitational. With tipoff still another 24 hours away, we'll try to get you prepared for the first big showdown of the Big East season on Big Monday.

#4 Connecticut Huskies (10-0)
Head Coach: Jim Calhoun

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Kemba Walker (6-1 Jr., 26.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.1 SPG, 52% FG, 86% FT, 42% 3pt)
SG: Jeremy Lamb (6-5 Fr., 7.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 45% FG, 67% FT)
SF: Roscoe Smith (6-8 Fr., 7.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 42% FG, 85% FT, 44% 3pt)
PF: Alex Oriakhi (6-9 So., 11.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 55% FG, 62% FT)
C: Charles Okwandu (7-0 Sr., 2.0 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 43% FG, 25% FT)

Key Reserves:
G Shabazz Napier (6-0 Fr., 8.6 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 2.8 APG, 2.1 SPG, 35% FG, 73% FT)
F Niels Giffey (6-7 Fr., 5.2 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 44% FG, 71% FT)

Keys To Victory:
KO - Kemba Walker (K) and Alex Oriakhi (O) have been the Huskies' 1-2 punch throughout the season, and each of UConn's ten opponents has gone down for the count due to the exploits of Jim Calhoun's young charges. Walker has yet to slow down from a torrid start to the season, and Oriakhi is averaging just about a double-double a night for the upstart Huskies, who were picked in the lower eight of the Big East at October's media day.
A Different World - Calhoun admitted that there's a different look to the team this season, as there is an outside-oriented team running up and down the court as opposed to the big, inside-out style Calhoun has managed to employ to his advantage for the last two decades. What is most impressive about the "small ball" Huskies is that they have managed to win convincingly under their new design, scoring 80 points a game while yielding only 62. Pitt lacks a big man aside from 6-11 Gary McGhee, so it should be an even matchup with UConn, whose tallest player after seven-footer Charles Okwandu is the 6-9 Oriakhi.
Super Sub - Shabazz Napier will be Kemba Walker's heir apparent whenever Walker decides to take the step up to the NBA, either this year or the following season. Considering how Walker and Napier have played, it might be in the best interest of both to have Walker declare for the draft following the season. Napier, his freshman backup, only gets about 23 minutes a night, but his numbers are much better than some starters at the point for other Big East programs. Consider this: Over eight points per game, just under three assists and a little over two steals a night. Not bad for the first guy off the bench.

#6 Pittsburgh Panthers (12-1)
Head Coach: Jamie Dixon

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Ashton Gibbs (6-2 Jr., 16.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 3.4 APG, 45% FG. 85% FT, 44% 3pt)
SG: Brad Wanamaker (6-4 Sr., 12.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 5.6 APG, 1.8 SPG, 50% FG, 76% FT, 36% 3pt)
SF: Gilbert Brown (6-6 Sr., 11.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.1 APG, 46% FG, 72% FT, 40% 3pt)
PF: Talib Zanna (6-9 Fr., 5.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 60% FG, 48% FT)
C: Gary McGhee (6-11 Sr., 5.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 50% FG, 43% FT)

Key Reserves:
F Dante Taylor (6-9 So., 7.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 70% FG, 56% FT)
G Travon Woodall (5-11 So., 6.7 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 38% FG, 67% FT)
F Nasir Robinson (6-5 Jr., 6.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 53% FG, 48% FT)

Keys To Victory:
Protect This House
- Any Pitt preview has to start with the Panthers' dominance at the Petersen Center. Since their on-campus home opened in 2002, Pitt has gone an eye-popping 141-11, good enough for an astounding .928 winning percentage. For those unsure about just how impressive that is, it's akin to your favorite NFL team going 15-1 for ten years straight, which is practically impossible to do given the parity in that league.
Thrice - Pitt will walk into tomorrow night's contest shooting 37% from the three-point line as a team. Two players (Ashton Gibbs and Gilbert Brown) are shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc, and it's no secret that those two are Jamie Dixon's best clutch players aside from all-around star Brad Wanamaker, who has to be on the short list for Big East player of the year just a month and a half into this 2010-11 campaign.
A To Z - We know about Ashton Gibbs and how vital his presence is to the Panthers even though it's Wanamaker who makes the motor run. The X-factor, however, is Talib Zanna. Earlier in the year, I mentioned that the redshirt freshman could be the long-awaited replacement for DeJuan Blair after his solid debut against Rhode Island. While Zanna's productivity has decreased since then, the Big East brings out the best in anyone and anything can happen in the best conference (arguably) in college hoops.

So, Who Wins?
Pitt has been battle tested already with the loss to Tennessee, even though that game has been compromised with the Vols' recent losing streak to Jacksonville, UNC-Charlotte and Southern Cal. UConn has two quality wins as well from their Maui Invitational performance, but nothing that has resonated nationally since the Kentucky game. While it will be a close game, (what game between these two isn't?) the Panthers' homecourt advantage will simply be too much for the Huskies to withstand as they will fall just short in a valiant effort.

Your Final: Pitt 89. UConn 84

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